Louisiana Legislature OKs bill that seeks to kill levee board lawsuit _lowres

Advocate Photo by ELIZABETH CRISP -- State Sen. Bret Allain II, R-Franklin, left, tells State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, during debate Friday that the legislation sidetracking a levee board lawsuit would not impact similar litigation filed by parish governments.

Handing the governor and the energy industry what they had sought for months, the Louisiana Senate approved Friday and sent to the governor’s desk a bill that can reach back and kill a pending lawsuit that seeks compensation for environmental damage caused by oil and gas companies.

Catching the environmentalist community by surprise, the state Senate suspended its rules and voted 25 to 11 to concur with House amendments, thereby sending the legislation to Gov. Bobby Jindal to sign into law.

Opponents, who had been gearing up for a final legislative battle, say they did not expect state Sen. Bret Allain II to so quickly bring up his measure. It had passed the Louisiana House late Thursday, But they also say the fight is not over.

Senate Bill 469 includes specific language telling courts that the Legislature intended to change the conditions and thereby void a lawsuit filed last year by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East that alleges the drilling activities of 97 oil and gas companies damaged Louisiana’s coast and vulnerable wetlands.

Jindal as well as the oil and gas industry opposed the lawsuit. About 18 bills were filed during the 2014 session to invalidate this litigation and similar lawsuits. But getting rid of the SLFPA-E lawsuit seemed a goal for Jindal and the industry.

Allain II, a Republican landowner from Franklin, said he doesn’t consider his SB469 to be retroactive because the levee board did not issue the permits for companies to work in the marshes and had no right to sue in the first place.

All the Legislature has done with this measure is clarify the rights and responsibilities of an agency created by the Legislature, Allain said after the vote.

“It’ll stand up to all the legal challenges,” he predicted.

That challenge could come pretty soon.

SB469 becomes effective upon the governor’s signature, which he probably will do over the weekend.

Jindal said in a prepared statement: “I am happy to support SB469 by Sen. Allain and look forward to signing it when it reaches my desk.”

Gifford Briggs, with the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, said he expects the plaintiffs to then challenge the constitutionality of the legislation.

Gladstone N. Jones III, a New Orleans lawyer representing SLFPA-E, was traveling and would not be available for comment, his staff said Friday.

But John Barry, who as a member SLFPA-E became the face of the lawsuit, said the SLFPA-E litigation would provide the leverage enough to bring the energy industry to the bargaining table to pay money that could go towards the billions needed, but not appropriated, for the plan to restore Louisiana’s fast-eroding coastline.

“What we had here was a potential statewide solution to the funding problem, and the governor turned his back on the state and particularly on the coast. All he had to do was use this as an opportunity,” he said.

Barry was not reappointed to SLFPA-E after Jindal condemned the litigation.

“I heard from several legislators that killing this lawsuit was the governor’s number one goal for this session,” said Barry, who is now with Restore Louisiana Now.

Steve Murchie, campaign director of the Gulf Restoration Network, says he’s concerned that federal officials now will be reluctant to approve funding for coastal restoration. Congressmen from anywhere north of the Gulf Coast may find it difficult to explain to constituents why they, as taxpayers, should contribute to Louisiana’s problem when this state’s policymakers “are clearly letting a responsible party off the hook and going out their way to do that,” he said.

SLFPA-E claims the 97 companies dug, then abandoned about 10,000 miles of canals through the wetlands. The canals contributed to saltwater intrusion into the brackish waters of the marshes, which killed the vegetation and caused erosion. Without the marshy buffer, hurricane storms surges have a much graver impact on population centers, according to the SLFPA-E lawsuit allegations.

“There had to be some other reason for the suit,” said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton a leading advocate for the oil and gas industry and a co-sponsor of SB469. “As I read the contracts that tied back to the law firms and the suit it appeared to me ... they were just looking for a source of money.”

SB469 would allow government agencies under the Coastal Resources Management Act to bring legal claims involving allegations about permits in coastal areas. Those agencies would be the state, the secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources, the attorney general, parish governments with coastal management plans and the local district attorneys for parishes without a plan.

SLFPA-E is not on that list.

The legislation would not impact similar lawsuits that have been filed by the governments of Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes. It also would not stop other local governments from filing lawsuits. “The parishes have all the rights they had before,” Allain said.