Legislators question levee lawsuit

Legislators delving into a controversial lawsuit against the oil and gas industry got into a war of words Wednesday between the Jindal administration and New Orleans-area levee board officials.

Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East Vice President John Barry told legislators that the governor’s top coastal adviser, Garret Graves, learned in December about the authority’s plans to file suit and never raised an objection.

Gov. Bobby Jindal strongly opposes the lawsuit.

“He certainly never blessed the effort … but he never asked us not to do it,” Barry said, referring to Graves.

Once Graves got his opportunity to address legislators, he denounced the lawsuit and then pivoted the discussion to Barry’s account.

“I heard it said that I never objected. That is complete fiction,” Graves said.

Over several hours, the meeting often got testy as members of the Joint Committee on Transportation, Highways and Public Works questioned the levee board about its lawsuit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies over the erosion of the state’s coastal wetlands.

The questions often were technical, keying into whether the board had the legal authority to file the lawsuit.

Graves said the board has no business suing the oil and gas industry on the state’s behalf. He compared the board’s action to the mayor of Grand Isle declaring war on Canada for the U.S.

“Inappropriate,” Graves said, summing up his view of the board’s action.

Legislators spent hours on the issue, allowed members of the public to speak and then adjourned without taking any action.

“There’s not a lot we can do until we get into session,” state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said afterward, comparing the situation to when legislators retroactively halted a lawsuit by the city of New Orleans against gun manufacturers.

The next legislative session is in 2014.

In the interim, Jindal is exploring a more immediate approach.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East encompasses the East Jefferson, Orleans and Lake Borgne Basin levee districts.

The authority set off a firestorm by filing a suit that accuses oil and gas companies of contributing to the destruction of the state’s coastline and making communities vulnerable to storm surges.

Presidents of 22 levee boards denounced the lawsuit this week as a threat to the state’s existing coastal restoration plan and a possible strain on relationships with an energy industry that provides thousands of jobs in Louisiana.

“We filed suit because we don’t want other people to die in a hurricane or have their homes and livelihoods destroyed,” Barry told legislators Wednesday.

Stephen Estopinal, the authority’s treasurer, compared the oil and gas industry to a rock band that trashes a hotel room. He said they should have to clean up the mess they created.

“The industry’s trashed our flood protection,” he said.

Graves acknowledged that the state does have a coastal crisis. However, he puts the bulk of the blame on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for how levees were put in place.

He said the state is working toward a solution for better flood protection.

“I’m most offended by this whole thing because we have spent years and years pulling people together. … We have Republicans, Democrats. We have all races,” Graves said.

Barry said the courts should determine whether the oil and gas industry broke the law.

“We are not litigious. I’ve never sued anyone in my life. Someone threatened to sue me once. It was unpleasant,” Barry said.

State Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, accused the authority of going after the oil and gas industry because of its deep pockets.

Another legislator, state Rep. Jerry “Truck” Gisclair, said oil companies added to the misery of Louisiana losing coastal land equal in size to the state of Rhode Island.

But, he said, the state of Louisiana also allowed some of the destruction to happen.

“We have to look at ourselves,” said Gisclair, D-Larose.

Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a former legislator who lives in Bossier Parish, commended the authority for filing the lawsuit.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of here. There’s nothing to run from. … I hope it goes to court. If you go to court and you don’t get anything, big deal. What has it hurt?” he asked.