Coastal authority, levee board attorneys at odds over lawsuit

The state’s coastal authority wants to investigate whether the contract is legal between the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East and its attorneys in its lawsuit against oil and gas companies.

At its Wednesday meeting in Baton Rouge, the coastal authority approved a resolution directing its chairman, Garret Graves, to look into the matter, and also requested that the levee board, which represents parts of the greater New Orleans area, do the same.

If the contract is invalid, it would mean the levee board does not owe the lawyers for the work they’ve already done on the suit, which comes to between $500,000 and $800,000, according to Gladstone Jones III, one of the attorneys representing the levee board.

The lawsuit was filed by the flood protection authority in July against more than 90 oil and gas companies for the damage to coastal wetlands caused by the dredging of canals.

The resolution came after the flood protection authority’s lawyers gave a presentation to the coastal authority in what turned into a heated back and forth over the lawsuit, how it was done and even what some at the meeting said were personal attacks against Graves.

The attorneys’ presentation started with photos of marsh near Delacroix. The photos showed the encroachment from 1956 to 2008 of oil field canals through the marsh as the marsh disappeared.

Jones said the flood authority’s lawsuit is based on years of science that oil and gas exploration and production has had a damaging impact on Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, and that asking for oil and gas companies to pay for that damage makes sense.

In addition, although the state has a $50 billion, 50-year master plan to address coastal land loss and flood protection, the state doesn’t have all of the money in hand, he said. That master plan calls for about $8 billion in coastal work for the area under the jurisdiction of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East. This is work that could provide protection to the levees and help fulfill the flood protection authority’s mission to reduce flood risk, Jones said.

The heated part of the meeting came when Jones responded to a number of comments Graves has made since the lawsuit was filed, which some coastal authority members took as picking on Graves instead of sticking to explaining the lawsuit itself.

“Are we going to have to sit here and go over every email Mr. Graves has written over the year,” Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, a CPRA board member asked at one point. “We’ve got other things to do.”

Craig Taffaro, a CPRA board member who represents the Louisiana Division of Administration, agreed and called the attorneys’ presentation unprofessional.

“It has no credence on the lawsuit. Get to the lawsuit and leave the rest of this out,” Taffaro said. “This is just fodder for the media.”

For his part, Graves said he doesn’t disagree with the statements the attorneys said he made about the need for coastal restoration or that oil and gas activities had a negative impact on the coast.

“We do have a coastal crisis,” Graves said.

However, he said, the lawsuit was the wrong way to approach the situation. The flood protection authority was just looking at the microcosm of its own territory, Graves said, and from that point of view, he could see why the levee board members thought the lawsuit made sense. However, Graves said, if one looks at the entire coast, the lawsuit doesn’t make sense.

“This is such a serious issue for us when you look at the 100 percent (whole picture) that we believe the lawsuit needs to be stopped, Graves said.

As far as the funding is concerned, Graves agreed that the state hasn’t identified where all $50 billion will come from for the master plan, but the state anticipates about $10 billion from various funding sources that will pay for work over the next 10 years. He said the state could only complete, at the most, about $1 billion in work each year. The coastal program will have to work to identify funding sources as it moves along, he said.

“Our strategy is working, but because of this action of jumping in front of the line, the tail wagging the dog, I’ll guarantee you the communities of the coast will receive less money than they would have,” Graves said.

Graves said when the state legislature created CPRA under the direction of Congress after Hurricane Katrina, it made it clear that CPRA would be the one entity in charge of levee protection and coastal restoration.

“I just wish this could have gone down differently, Mr. Jones, that we could be wearing the same jersey, but we don’t,” Graves said, using the sports analogy that others had been using throughout the discussion.