Advocate Photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- State Reps Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, and Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, during Louisiana House debate Thursday on legislation to cleanup environmental damage.

Debate over legislation affecting lawsuits that want oil and gas companies to clean up after themselves became so contentious Thursday that Louisiana House Speaker Chuck Kleckley threatened to send representatives to “time out.”

On a vote of 73-18, the House passed Senate Bill 667. Earlier in the day, the House approved another measure, House Bill 854. Both bills head to the Senate for consideration.

The energy industry backed both bills, which tinkered with the handling of “legacy lawsuits.”

Supporters said SB667 would clarify procedures and would generate more environmental cleanup — prior to costly litigation — of long ago oil and gas activities. The measure would define contamination and set guidelines to encourage responsible parties to admit liability and work with the state to cleanup the mess. It also would clarify the type of damages that could be awarded.

Opponents countered the measure would give the oil and gas industry immunity from lawsuits and would reach back to change the rules for lawsuits that have already been filed.

In particular, the homeowners near Bayou Corne would have to drop their lawsuits against the oilfield brine storage company they claim is responsible for the sinkhole that forced them to evacuate their homes, said state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, who represents some of the Bayou Corne residents.

“People at the sinkhole will not have the same rights and privileges if this bill becomes law that they had when they filed the lawsuit,” Harrison said. “You have changed the rules.”

An agitated state Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, demanded to know how the people of Assumption Parish, where Bayou Corne is located, would not be allowed to file lawsuits. He said Harrison was shilling for lawyers who represent people who filed “legacy lawsuits” against the energy industry.

“Are you trying to get an amendment through on a tragedy?” Dove said. “This is a way to skirt around something that we have all been working for.”

Harrison answered back angrily.

Kleckley said, “Let’s calm down. I’ll put both of you in time out.”

“This bill has nothing to do with the Bayou Corne community,” said state Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans. The legislation only clarified the procedures used in lawsuits filed under specific area of the law. None of the Bayou Corne lawsuits were filed under that area of the law, he said.

“I respectfully disagree,” replied state Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, who also represents many of the Bayou Corne residents.

At issue was an amendment added to the SB667 in Senate committee to ensure that the existing lawsuits would not be impacted by the change.

The original wording was exempt only those lawsuits that had been set for trial. But the Senate changed the bill’s language to exclude all the cases that had been filed.

The exclusion survived the full Senate, but was stripped off in the House Civil Law and Procedure committee, which Abramson chairs.

State Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, said he pushed the exclusionary language because he discovered that it was taking a long time for courts set these cases for trial. He also questioned where the proponents got the right to call it compromise inasmuch as only big landowners, the oil industry and their representatives were at the negotiations.

The hundreds of small landowners who have sued seeking to have the oil and gas companies clean up after themselves were not included in any talks and, opponents say, their litigation is put in peril by the bill.

House opponents of the legislation tried several attempts to tack the Morrish exception back onto the bill without success.

On a vote of 91-1, the representatives also approved House Bill 854.

“The goal of this is to cleanup the property as soon as possible,” Abramson said. Generally, the bill would move the actual cleaning up soiled property from the end of the litigation process to nearer the beginning.

Under current practices, cleanup of the remnants of long-ago oil and gas exploration, drilling and production generally is the product of litigation, commonly called “legacy lawsuits.” Abramson said the state Department of Natural Resources is brought in to plan the cleanup after the court decides the case, which often is years later.

Part of the problem is funding. The state does not appropriate enough money to allow DNR to do the planning and oversee cleanup.

The technical legal language of House Bill 854 creates a mechanism that allows the defendants in a lawsuit to make a limited admission of responsibility, and provide money for DNR to plan and clean up the property. The lawsuit is allowed to continue over the other issues.

“This bill will help get the land in Louisiana cleaned to where we want it to be,” said state Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette and sponsor of HB854.