David Hammer / Eyewitness News
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Battle lines were drawn Tuesday over the east bank levee authority's lawsuit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies for their historic role in destroying coastal wetlands.

The lawsuit zeroes in on the companies' decades-old practice of dredging access canals for pipelines and other drilling and extracting activities, placing the blame at their feet for Louisiana's devastating loss of coastal wetlands over the last half century or so.

The suit, filed last week in Orleans Civil District Court, alleges that the oil companies' canals permitted saltwater to intrude into freshwater marshes, and that the companies failed to meet their duty to restore what they destroyed.

Gov. Bobby Jindal lashed out at the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, saying it was acting on behalf of greedy trial lawyers and had 'overstepped its authority.'

On Tuesday, Don Briggs of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association praised Jindal for his swift response and called on the governor to champion tort reform, calling the lawsuit 'frivolous' and another example of the hundreds of 'legacy lawsuits' filed by landowners against oil companies over the past decade.

But the levee authority is the first constitutionally empowered group to join the fray, and it got its own support from high places, first in a Monday op-ed from retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, the Katrina hero, and Tuesday from an array of environmental advocates.

The protesters blasted the usually measured Jindal for jumping so quickly to the oil companies' defense.

'It shocked me that we have Governor Jindal, who talks about being a strong advocate for wetland protection, attacking an agency who's trying to get these wetlands restored,' said Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club.The group called on residents to sign a petition in support of the lawsuit.

And Sandy Rosenthal, founder of the group, said the levee authority was finally pursuing a case many have wished to file against the oil companies for years, but lacked the clout and standing to do so.

'Apparently, the people with the power and money and intelligence to put together a lawsuit like this, apparently it needed to be someone protected from political pressure,' Rosenthal said. 'And this lawsuit will test whether the (flood protection authority) is truly protected from political pressure.'

The flood protection authority is an independent board of professionals that was created by constitutional amendment after Hurricane Katrina to replace the old political levee boards.

It voted 8-0 to sue 97 oil and gas companies and to hire lawyers on a contingency-fee basis, meaning they will bear the cost of pursuing the case and only get paid if they win.

The state constitution prohibits the state government from entering into such contracts, but plaintiff attorney Glad Jones said the authority, as an independent body, is not governed by that limitation.

'Non-political professionals have taken over this board, and they are being crushed by costs that are unsustainable,' Jones said. 'They have to keep up with the costs of levee repairs, so they feel like they have an obligation to hold anyone and everyone accountable for their role in creating these escalated costs, because the only other option is to transfer it to the citizens, and that is unsustainable.'

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