Environmental groups protest bill aimed at levee board lawsuits

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Russel Honoré, of the Green Army, an environmental group, criticized efforts by the energy industry to pass legislation that specifically targets environmental litigation filed by a New Orleans-area levee board.

Honoré spoke at an event protesting Senate Bill 469, which could be voted on later this week by the state Senate.

SB469 would allow government agencies under the Coastal Resources Management Act to bring legal claims involving allegations about permits in coastal areas. That would be the state, the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, the attorney general, parish governments with coastal management plans and the local district attorney for parishes without a plan.

But that list does not include the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, which filed lawsuits against 97 oil and gas companies claiming environmental damages to marshes.

The flood authority lawsuits claim that energy companies dug about 10,000 miles of canals through the wetlands, which led to the erosion of the buffer that lessened hurricane storm surges.

The energy industry, Gov. Bobby Jindal and many legislators oppose the litigation. More than a dozen bills have been filed to curb the lawsuits that seek money for the environmental damage. Opponents of the levee board litigation argue that the proper forum for these types of lawsuits is under the coastal zone management laws, which detail how such litigation would proceed and how any payments made would be spent.

Honoré said the energy industry is trying to keep the case out of the courts by having the Legislature pass laws that would negate the litigation filed by the levee board. He accused the executive branch of pushing the legislative branch to enact laws that would forbid legal actions against specific industry that should be considered the judicial branch.

“This one industry has captured our democracy,” said Honoré, who as a U.S. Army general was largely credited with restoring order in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina caused levees to collapse. “These bills will have the impact of running a Russian-style democracy in Louisiana.”

Bernie Boudreaux, a lawyer for the flood protection authority and a former executive counsel to Gov. Mike Foster, said the oil companies likely would be open to negotiating a settlement, the money for which could go to restoring Louisiana’s wetlands. But the industry is waiting to see if the Legislature passes the measures, particularly SB469, before talking.

“They will not come to the table unless there is litigation,” Boudreaux said.