Senate OKs bill that could halt levee suit

Advocate photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- State Sens. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, left, and Bret Allain II, R-Franklin, discuss legislation that would derail litigation filed against oil and gas companies by a New Orleans area levee board. Show caption
Advocate photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- State Sens. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, left, and Bret Allain II, R-Franklin, discuss legislation that would derail litigation filed against oil and gas companies by a New Orleans area levee board.

Jefferson, Plaquemines suits unaffected

The Louisiana Senate on Wednesday evening narrowly approved legislation that could derail the environmental lawsuit filed by a New Orleans levee board against 97 oil and gas companies.

Senate Bill 469 would allow only government agencies with a Coastal Zone Management Plan to bring legal claims involving allegations in coastal areas.

The state Department of Natural Resources, the state attorney general, governments of parishes with coastal plans and the district attorneys for those parishes without a plan would be able to file litigation. But the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority—East would not be eligible to pursue a lawsuit involving coastal issues.

The proposal wouldn’t impact similar lawsuits filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes against oil and gas companies or suits being considered by other coastal parishes.

The Senate voted 24-13 to send the legislation to the House of Representatives.

SB469 is one of about a dozen bills aimed at undermining the lawsuit the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority—East filed last year claiming that the unrepaired damage caused by exploration, drilling and production of oil and gas over the years has diminished the marshes that protect populated areas from hurricane storm surges.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and the energy companies are against the lawsuit, which they say is an effort by lawyers to enrich themselves at the expense of an industry that provides thousands of jobs.

State Sen. Bret Allain II, R-Franklin, said his legislation is aimed at protecting landowners while not chipping away at the authority of parish governments. But he opposes the lawsuit.

“I do not agree with the levee board lawsuit. This bill is designed to extinguish that,” Allain said. “You’re implicating and you’re bringing into the argument a whole lot of parties that don’t need to be there.”

Levee boards created the levees that have kept the rivers in channels, thereby keeping sediment from replenishing the marshes, Allain said. Yet only the oil and gas industry is blamed in the lawsuit, he said.

State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said the lawsuits are improper because state agencies should not have the right to file lawsuits without permission. “If you let this happen, any agency of the state can do whatever they want,” he said.

State Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, said he too dislikes the levee board’s suit, but that what Allain and his supporters are attempting is to retroactively negate the lawsuit by changing rules now and saying the board failed to follow the proper rules. He argued that the lawsuit should be decided in court, not by the Legislature.

“This ain’t the place,” Martiny said.

But Martiny’s attempt to exempt the pending lawsuit from the bill narrowly failed, with senators voting 18-19 for it.

Another proposal aimed at voiding the flood authority’s lawsuit also won Senate support earlier this session. It hasn’t yet been heard in the House.

The Associated Press contributed to this report