NEW ORLEANS - Gov. Bobby Jindal denounced the historic lawsuit against oil and gas companies filed Wednesday by a local levee board, saying the board overstepped its authority and calling the suit the work of trial lawyers looking for a 'windfall' by blaming the industry for coastal erosion.
Jindal, who appoints the members of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, said in a statement that he is demanding that the agency kill the lawsuit by canceling a contract with trial lawyers handling the case, because the suit oversteps the board's authority, he believes.
'Governor Jindal emphasized that he is not going to let a single levee board taken over by a group of trial lawyers determine flood protection, coastal restoration and economic repercussions for the state,' said the statement from the governor.
'The lawsuit oversteps the authority of the board by attempting to act on behalf of the state to determine coastal policy. The legality of the contract is also in question because Louisiana statute requires my approval in such matters. The board should pull the contract immediately.'
The east bank levee authority filed its massive lawsuit in Orleans Civil District Court, accusing close to 100 firms of causing devastating damage to coastal Louisiana and demanding that they fix it.
The district argues that the 97 oil, gas and pipeline firms it is suing have caused a significant loss of coastal wetlands by cutting channels into south Louisiana, allowing saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico to intrude and kill marshes.
'Throughout this state, the industry has dredged 10,000 miles or more of canals and pipelines,' said John Barry, vice president of the SLFPA-E board.
In most cases, Barry says, those firms agreed to permits that required them to restore what they damaged.
'They have not complied with these requirements,' he said at a morning news conference.
In addition, Barry says federal law forbids any activity that impairs the effectiveness of a levee.
'When you increase the storm surge by taking away the buffer of land that protects those levees, you are impairing the effectiveness of a levee,' he said.
He argues the industry also violated a principle of law which forbids activity that sends water onto neighboring property.
The levee authority says it recognizes the industry did not cause all of the coastal erosion.
'We are not asking or expecting the industry to fix everything. We are asking that the fix the part of the problem that they caused,' Barry said.
The levee authority's attorney says the state and parishes have spent millions restoring damage. The federal government has spent close to $15 billion for protection.
And in 25 years, plaintiff's attorney Gladstone Jones says the oil industry has taken roughly $470 billion in revenue from the state.
'They had a duty, not only an express duty but a moral duty, to come in and fix the marsh area that their operations damaged,' Jones said.
The levee authority says if the industry fails to step up, this region of one million or more people will be in jeopardy.
'I love New Orleans. And I want New Orleans to survive. And if something is not done it will not survive. It's that simple,' said Barry.
Don Briggs, the president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, responded with a statement calling the suit an example of what he called the state's 'sue-happy legal climate.
'This is just one more group seeking to extort money from the oil and gas industry.... This group is suing the very industry that is providing steady growth and stable jobs in a flailing economy.'
Jindal's statement said that he believes the agency overstepped its authority in filing the suit.
'By filing this suit against nearly 100 companies, the SLFPAE has effectively taken on the role of the governor, the attorney general, the department of natural resources and the CPRA in determining the state's policy on coastal issues,' Jindal's statement read.
Jindal is also questioning the legality of the contract with the agency's lawyers, saying that any state board which seeks to file suit, or hire an outside counsel, requires the approval of the governor and attorney general.
'The governor did not approve this contract nor would he have approved this contract,' says Jindal's office.
'This is nothing but a windfall for a handful of trial lawyers. It boils down to trial lawyers who see dollar signs in their future and who are taking advantage of people who want to restore Louisiana's coast. These trial lawyers are taking this action at the expense of our coast and thousands of hardworking Louisianians who help fuel America by working in the energy industry.'