Guest commentary: Politics threatens levee board reforms _lowres

Russel Honore'

After Hurricane Katrina, voters approved a constitutional amendment with 81 percent of the vote statewide — over 90 percent in the New Orleans metro area — to create the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, a reform levee board of nonpolitical flood experts. To protect this reform, a special nominating committee — not politicians — selects board members.

Because of a lawsuit the board filed against the oil industry for its role in coastal land loss, earlier this year the governor and the oil industry tried to destroy the reform in the Legislature. They failed, but now the authority’s own nominating committee is on the verge of doing it for them. At risk is not only the reform itself but public safety.

The governor has declared that all new appointments to the levee board would have to oppose the lawsuit, and the nominating committee, under the leadership of Chairman Jay Lapeyre, has complied. Lapeyre also chairs the board of directors of an oil-service company whose customers include SLFPA-East lawsuit defendants. In most states, Lapeyre would have to recuse himself, but not in Louisiana.

The committee allowed the governor to replace the former chief engineer for California’s 1,600 miles of levees with a lobbyist who has no prior experience in or knowledge of flood protection, but who serves on the board of the governor’s wife’s charitable foundation.

The committee replaced a commissioner whom the state’s congressional delegation asked to chair a bipartisan working group on flood protection and whom the National Academies of Science honored for his contribution to water-related knowledge with a lawyer with no prior experience in or knowledge of flood protection and whose clients are connected to SLFPA-E lawsuit defendants. This lawyer is Joe Hassinger, who was president of the commission created to handle the nonflood assets owned by the Orleans Levee District (two marinas, Lakefront airport, commercial real estate). This is ironic, since reformers demanded the removal of these nonflood assets from the flood authority’s concerns, and this lawyer fought for six years to take money away from flood protection to give to nonflood areas.

The committee also replaced SLFPA-E’s board president — who was first elected over a past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers and re-elected without opposition six times — with someone with no experience in or knowledge of flood protection.

Now SLFPA-E board member Paul Kemp’s term has expired. The committee, if it chooses, can re-nominate Kemp and send his name to the governor alone, in which case the governor cannot reject him, and Kemp could serve into the next governor’s term, or it can pair him with another person who opposes the lawsuit, allowing the governor to pick the other nominee. This could give lawsuit opponents a majority of the board.

Kemp is a scientist with a well-earned international reputation whose particular expertise is enormously important now that the new levee system has been built. Few people realize that the existing system, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, already provides protection against the “still water” level of a 500-year storm surge, i.e., against a 500-year storm without waves. The way to cut down wave heights — and greatly upgrade our 100-year protection — is to restore land buffers outside the levees. Kemp’s entire professional career has been devoted to precisely these questions.

Being nonpolitical does not mean your actions will have no political consequences. It means you make decisions based on what you think is right and not for some political agenda. When the board voted unanimously to file the lawsuit, it knew it would stir up a hornet’s nest. The board felt it had to act because no one else would, and people’s lives and property were at risk. No one disputes the industry’s liability; the trade association for major oil companies itself concedes that in part of the state, industry operations were “the overwhelming cause” of land loss. Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Jerome Zeringue says, “No one denies there is a responsibility and obligation on the part of oil and gas in regard to the effects of oil and gas activity.”

But because of politics, the state has done nothing. The Legislature has already passed a law that aims to kill the lawsuit. Let this be enough.

If the nominating committee does not ensure that Kemp stays on the board, it will betray citizens and the reform they voted for, and it will hurt public safety even more than its recent nominees already have. It now must choose: Play politics or stand as a profile in courage.

Russel Honoré, a retired Army lieutenant general, heads the GreenARMY, an environmental advocacy group.