Levee authority reaffirms support for lawsuit against oil, gas companies

Levee authority again votes in favor of oil, gas action

Commissioners on a local levee authority once again committed themselves Thursday to pursuing a coastal-erosion lawsuit the authority has filed against 97 oil and gas companies. The vote, although entirely symbolic, nonetheless sparked debate between the suit supporters and three new members appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal because of their opposition to the case.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East’s 5-3 vote in favor of the suit was aimed at countering public perception that the board’s enthusiasm for the suit might be weakening in light of a contentious meeting two weeks ago at which it failed to vote on a similar motion of support.

The vote will have no bearing on the case itself. The lawsuit would have gone ahead even if the motion had failed, and nothing about the case changes because of its passage.

However, Commissioner Richard Luettich, who asked for Thursday’s special meeting, said it was important for the authority to make its position clear. “We have a very different board than the board that acted on this resolution in the summer,” he noted.

Sending a clear message one way or the other was important, Luettich said. While it is “honorable” to be on either side of the issue, he said, inaction would “undermine our legal team and undermine our entire effort.”

Commissioners spent little time discussing the merits of the suit, with debate instead centering around the newly appointed commissioners’ questions about why a special meeting was necessary and whether proper policies had been followed in hiring Jones Swanson, the lead law firm handling the suit.

This was the third time the board voted in favor of pursuing the case. The first vote, to hire the attorneys representing the authority, and the second, to reaffirm support for the case after the Jindal administration went on the attack, both passed unanimously.

But a similar measure proposed at last month’s meeting was deferred on a 5-3 vote, with commissioners Louis Wittie and Wilton Tilly siding with the new commissioners in delaying the vote. Wittie said he had not realized at the time that the deferral could be interpreted as a sign some commissioners were wavering in their support.

Both Wittie and Tilly voted in favor of the suit Thursday, joining Luettich and Commissioners Stephen Estopinal and Paul Kemp. The three new commissioners — Joe Hassinger, Jeff Angers and Kelly McHugh — all voted against the measure. Authority President Tim Doody, who votes only if there is a tie, did not vote but seemed supportive of the effort.

“The board before you all got on voted for this action. All we’re doing is reaffirming this,” Doody said as the new board members questioned the procedure used to select the law firms representing the authority. “I understand what you’re saying, I understand what you’re trying to do. But we’ve discussed this to death.”

That Hassinger voted at all seemed to take Doody by surprise. Last month, Hassinger withdrew a proposal to put the suit on hold until the state Board of Ethics could weigh in on whether his job at a law firm representing oil and gas companies represents a conflict of interest. That opinion has not yet been issued. When Doody brought up the issue, Hassinger said he felt comfortable voting because the board’s action Thursday “has no effect.”

The authority’s lawsuit charges that energy companies are responsible for billions of dollars of damage to coastal wetlands because of dredging, pipeline construction and drilling in southeast Louisiana over the course of seven decades. Permits for the work required the companies to repair damage caused by their activities, and the suit alleges none of that work was ever done.

If successful, the suit would require the companies to repair the damage or, where that isn’t possible, compensate the authority for the larger, more complex and more expensive flood protection systems necessary to compensate for the loss of coastal land that could have blunted storm surge from approaching storms.

Representatives of several environmental groups urged the commission to reaffirm its support for the suit. They were joined by former Commissioner John Barry, who was ousted from the board for his role in the suit and now heads a group known as Restore Louisiana Now, and retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who leads a loose organization of environmental groups known as the “Green Army.”

“They do not have a legal or moral right to destroy our wetland, and all that’s being asked is they clean up the mess they made,” Honore said.