Filed Under:  Environmental, Local, News

Levee board defends its oil-and-gas suit

30th September 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East—the local, levee board formed after Katrina—has been subjected to multiple, Jindal Administration jabs for filing a coastal erosion lawsuit against oil-and-gas operators in July. On Wednesday, John Barry, whose term as SLFPA-E vice president expired on June 30, urged the administration to support the suit. He spoke at a forum of the Independent Women’s Organization and the Eastern New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission. The state declined to provide a speaker for the event.

The suit accuses 97 oil-and-gas companies of destroying wetlands and violating state and federal permit requirements.

The SLFPA-E operates and maintains levees, floodgates and seawalls protecting the east bank of the Mississippi River in Greater New Orleans. Barry has served on the board in the months since his term expired in June, awaiting his replacement. He remains hopeful of being renominated but Governor Jindal has said that won’t happen. Barry, an author and historian, is best known for Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America.

John Lopez, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, kicked off Wednes­day’s discussion with some oil-and-gas history, saying his comments were scientific and technical, not legal judgments. Canal digging for oil-and-gas pipelines was busiest in the 1930s to late 1950s, and was one of many factors responsible for local land loss, he said. “By the 1970s, companies tried to control their impacts with directional dredging and drilling from existing canals, which often negated the need for new canals,” he said.

Oil-and-gas canals destroyed wetlands and affected the flow of water around them, causing further marsh losses, Lopez said. Considerable land loss in Louisiana has been associated with these canals. And subsidence, or sinking of the land’s surface, has at times coincided with oil-and-gas activity, he noted.

Barry said a U.S. Geological Survey study from year 2000 estimated that oil-and-gas activity accounted for up to 36 percent of Louisiana’s land loss over a 58-year period. The industry’s blame was higher in concentrated areas of activity, he said. Most canals were dredged under state and federal permits, requiring companies to return land to pre-project conditions as much as possible, he said. Few companies ever complied with that part of their permits, however.

Barry said because of its French and Spanish heritage, Louisiana operates under a civil code, unlike other states governed by common law. “The civil code says a person can’t increase the flow of water on someone else’s property,” as the canals have done, he said.

Barry said the East Bank levee authority’s suit deserves the Jindal Administration’s support, especially since it could add to funds that might be used to defend the coast. “But the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority passed a resolution opposing our lawsuit in August,” he said.

CPRA head Garrett Graves has told the levee board it doesn’t have the authority to sue, Barry said. “Garrett has also said our suit will interfere with the civil suit against BP” for the 2010 spill off Louisiana’s coast. Fines expected to be levied against BP will provide a chunk of money for the state’s $50 billion Coastal Master Plan, passed by the legislature last year.

The East Bank levee authority’s trial probably won’t begin until after the BP trial—which enters its second phase this week in U.S. district court in New Orleans—has ended, Barry said.

“Graves has told us our lawsuit will interfere with economic development,” Barry said. “We’re told we’ll scare people away, and oil and gas will leave the state.” Barry said big oil companies generally don’t exit a producing area until the crude they seek has dried up, however.

“Jindal has been a good governor in the coastal restoration effort,” Barry said Wednesday. “But if he were to hold oil and gas responsible for its mess, he could be a great governor.”

Barry said virtually all nine members of the East Bank levee authority, which is majority Republican, favor the lawsuit. The Office of the Louisiana Attorney General approved the suit in July. Filed in state district court in Orleans Parish in July, the case was moved to federal court. An Oct. 2 hearing, however, will consider the levee authority’s petition to return it to state court.

The suit is Board of Commissioners of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Auth­ority – East, et al., v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company, LLC, et al. The levee authority is represented in its litigation by Jones, Swanson, Huddell, and Garrison, LLC, of New Orleans; Fishman Haygood Phelps Walmsley Willis & Swanson, LLP of New Orleans; and Veron, Bice, Palermo & Wilson, LLC of Lake Charles.

This article originally published in the September 30, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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