Levee board opens door to settling lawsuit

The East Bank flood protection authority opened the door to negotiations Thursday in its coastal erosion suit against about 100 oil and gas companies after meeting with the state’s top coastal official.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East extended an “olive branch,” saying it would temporarily suspend the case if Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration comes forward with an alternative plan that holds these corporations accountable for damage to the coast.

The offer to “pause” some portions of the case for 45 days represents a potential option for deflating the tense political standoff between the administration and the levee board.

Both flood protection authority Vice President John Barry and Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves said the resolution should not be taken as a sign that they were backing off their positions. The two men, and the institutions they represent, have been locked in a war of words and political maneuvers since the suit was filed with Barry arguing that the case was the only way to protect the people and property of New Orleans, and the administration arguing the board overstepped its authority.

Barry said Thursday it would take a substantial proposal on the part of the administration to convince him it was worth slowing down the case.

“Anything I would regard as a solution would have to involve significant contributions on behalf of the industry,” Barry said.

The board’s decision to allow Barry to put the suit on hold came after hours of closed-door discussions during its Thursday meeting, including a talk with Graves.

Prior to approving the resolution, the board reaffirmed its commitment to the case with a vote in support of the suit.

Both resolutions passed with near unanimous votes. The only member who did not vote in favor of the resolution was board President Tim Doody, who recused himself because he works at a law firm that could become involved in the case on the side of the defendants.

Neither Barry nor Graves would discuss what conversations occurred behind closed doors with Graves citing an agreement to keep the content of that meeting confidential.

Graves characterized the option to hold off on the case as a reaction to the intense political pressure the board has faced in recent weeks. The administration, legislators and the other members of the Association of Levee Boards of Louisiana have all come out against the suit.

“If the SLFPA board resolution is an attempt to dictate to the state how this will proceed, then no, the tail’s not going to wag the dog,” Graves said. “If this is an olive branch to have a more constructive discussion on an appropriate path forward, then we certainly would be willing to have discussions.”

The levee board’s suit charges that oil and gas companies played a role in the destruction of southeast Louisiana’s wetlands by dredging canals and building pipelines and wells that either directly destroyed marshes or allowed salt water to infiltrate them, killing off plant life and speeding erosion. That loss of land, which is part of the 1,900 square miles of coastal erosion the state has seen over the last century, wiped out a natural buffer to storm surge and necessitated a more complex and expensive flood protection system to keep the New Orleans area protected from hurricanes.

The suit seeks to force the companies to restore the wetlands, something that was required in the permits granted to the companies, or help shoulder the cost of operating and maintaining the post-Hurricane Katrina flood protection system built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The corps will be turning over some of the East Bank system to the levee board in the coming years, a cost that officials say will strain the budget of some of its three levee districts.

The resolution approved Thursday would give Barry, who also chairs the levee board’s legal committee, the authority to authorize a “45-day pause in the substantive portions of the case” should CPRA or the administration come up with a proposal that would achieve the same goals.

The board’s attorneys would still be able to pursue “procedural issues” such as an on-going dispute over whether the case should be heard in state or federal court.

Attorneys and board members said they are still working out what aspects of the case would be considered “substantive,” but few of the aspects they named Thursday would likely come up this early in what is expected to be a years-long case.

“If there’s any possibility of working with the state on a larger solution then I am eager to embrace that possibility,” Barry said during the meeting. “I’m not saying there’s a good chance, but there’s a possibility and I think we would be remiss if we did not pursue that possibility.”

Barry said the pause could be extended so long as progress was being made, but warned the suit would proceed if it appeared the administration was not acting in good faith.”

By publicly reaffirming the suit in its other resolution, the board may also quell criticism that it did not discuss the suit during open meetings before it was filed. While the board voted publicly to hire the attorneys pursuing the case, and the Attorney General’s Office signed off on the selection of those attorneys and the contingency fees they will receive, the board did not vote outside of executive session to move forward with the case.

Barry declined to comment when asked whether that played a role in the resolution.

Representatives of several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Gulf Restoration Network and Levees.org, spoke in favor of the suit during Thursday’s meeting, congratulating the board on filing a “historic” case.

“The oil industry has not stepped up to the plate when we’ve asked them to mitigate,” said Cynthia Sarthou of the Gulf Restoration Network.