A district attorney in the heart of Louisiana's oil patch filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking damages from a long list of oil and gas companies for environmental contamination and coastal erosion blamed on decades of drilling and production in Vermilion Parish.
“While we all recognize the tremendous impact oil and gas activities have had on our local economy, every person who has ever fished, hunted and enjoyed the natural beauty of Vermilion Parish is aware of the environmental issues caused by oil and gas activities,” 15th Judicial District Attorney Keith Stutes said in a written statement.
The 15th Judicial District takes in Vermilion, Lafayette and Acadia parishes – a region intimately linked to the success of oil and gas operators – and Stutes' decision drew quick criticism from industry officials.
"What's shameful is that you have a DA in Lafayette and a local law firm filing a lawsuit against an industry that is on its knees right now and can barely keep the doors open," said Louisiana Oil and Gas Association President Don Briggs.
The lawsuit, which is being handled for the DA's office by private firms and names 49 oil and gas companies as defendants, seeks the restoration of the coast "to its original condition" and damages for harm done to coastal areas.
Similar lawsuits have been filed by Plaquemines, Cameron and Jefferson parishes.
The litigation has attracted the ire of the oil industry, which has disputed how much oil and gas companies should be blamed for coastal erosion and framed the lawsuits as an attack by environmental activists and trial lawyers.
The state Department of Natural Resources and the state Attorney General's Office have moved to intervene in the lawsuits filed in Plaquemines, Cameron and Jefferson parishes, and state officials earlier this year talked of a desire to negotiate a settlement in the cases.
"Industry is not in any settlement talk at all. Period," Briggs said Thursday. "There are no talks, and there is no thought of having any talks about having a settlement."
Briggs characterized the newly filed lawsuit in Vermilion Parish as "part of the ongoing legal attack on the oil and gas community" that could "put the parish on a dangerous path that could lead to economic turmoil."
In a written statement, Stutes defended his decision to pursue the litigation, saying a successful lawsuit could lead to new employment opportunities related to cleanup and restoration work in the parish.
"Restoring our coast and environment is an important economic impetus for our citizens,” he said. “Moreover, as district attorney, it is my fiduciary responsibility to see to it this law is enforced uniformly and the law is made to work with no show of favoritism. The message is simple: Clean up the mess that you have made and restore our coast to its original condition."