Louisiana Takes on|Oilfield Polluters

NEW ORLEANS (CN) — A new lawsuit against the oil industry brings to five the number of Louisiana coastal parishes that claim oil and gas companies’ violations of state laws have caused coastal erosion and contamination.
     Governor John Bel Edwards at the end of September gave coastal parishes 30 days to file lawsuits alleging state law violations by the oil industry. Otherwise, Edwards said, the state will file for them.
     In the most recent lawsuit, St. Bernard Parish claims ARCO, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and 11 other companies broke state laws by not obtaining proper permits, not properly discharging oilfield waste, not constructing sites adequate to withstand inclement weather, and not properly disposing of toxins, all of which has contributed to coastal erosion and pollution.
     Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes filed similar lawsuits two years ago and Cameron and Vermillion parishes earlier this year. Louisiana has parishes rather than counties.
     Louisiana loses a football field of land every hour on average. Strangulation of the Mississippi River, with dams that prevent sediment from traveling to needed areas for reconstruction is part of the problem. The other problem has to do with gas and oil development.
     Oil and gas pipelines have carved up what’s left of the wetlands, contributing to saltwater intrusion, resulting in collapse of the freshwater vegetation that could keep soil firmly rooted, and improper disposal of oilfield wastes have left costal land and water toxic.
     The lawsuits are aimed at working out a deal with oil and gas companies to cover the cost of the damage caused by drilling and dredging in coastal areas, and by contaminating water and land with drilling byproducts.
     Edwards, a Democrat, ran for office last year on the promise he would hold the oil industry accountable — even if the individual coastal parishes would not — for its part of the massive coastal land loss in Louisiana.
     The private attorneys Edwards plans to hire if the state files lawsuits on behalf of coastal parishes have stirred up a controversy, in part because Edwards has handpicked a legal team consisting of the largest contributors to his campaign, and because Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry is opposed to filing the lawsuits.
     So far, all five coastal parishes that have filed on their own have hired the same Baton Rouge law firm, Talbot, Carmouche and Marcello, as their lead attorneys.
     John Carmouche told Courthouse News Service in a phone interview last week that parishes hiring their own attorneys to sue the industry — as opposed to having Edwards bring the lawsuit on behalf of the state — is the probably the best bet.
     “We strictly protect the locals’ interests,” Carmouche said.
     “We only represent the parishes, and are filing to protect the locals, and we only sue the oil companies when there were violations of the law.”
     St. Bernard officials hired Carmouche even though they were originally of the opinion they would not file, he said, “until they saw what was happening and they felt they had to protect the parish and protect the locals, and they thought they would have more control.”
     “I think it will be interesting in the next 45 days to see if [parishes] can take control,” Carmouche said.
     Edwards had tried to negotiate a settlement with oil companies to no avail, the governor told WWL-TV in New Orleans.
     “I did have a meeting with the oil and gas industry, at which time they didn’t express much interest in continuing to talk,” Edwards said. “So, as I said I would do, we are going to move forward with the litigation.”
     Edwards’ letter did not help his relationship with Attorney General Landry, a conservative Republican, who has said many times he opposes holding the oil industry accountable for coastal damages through costly and time-consuming litigation.
     Representatives for Landry did not reply to an emailed request for comment.
     Landry issued a press statement the last time such a lawsuit was filed, back in July, in Vermillion Parish.
     “Again — we can balance the tremendous benefits of the oil and gas industry and the ongoing coastal crisis,” Landry said. “But the creation of superfluous litigation solely benefiting the attorneys involved does not serve that purpose. Furthermore — creating a situation where multiple courts rule on the same issues will result in inconsistencies, conflicts and confusion.
     “We intend to intervene in this lawsuit and any subsequent ones to protect the interests of our state and its people in the most judicious and economical manner,” Landry said.
     A representative from Chevron replied to an emailed request for comment by saying the oil and gas industry is the number one supporter of Louisiana wetlands, and that “Chevron has been working hand-in-hand with nonprofit groups and the government on environmental programs for decades.”
     The oil giant said it is converting a 71,000-acre former oilfield in St. Charles Parish into a wetland bank.
     ConocoPhillips said it does not comment on active litigation.
     The industry defendants have not restored the wetlands to their original condition, St. Bernard Parish says. The industry disposes of radioactive and other toxic waste in unlined earth waste pits, which “are simply holes, ponds, or excavations dug into the ground or marsh,” and many of them have never been closed, leading to water contamination, according to the complaint.
     State law requires oil and gas extraction sites to be “restored as near as practicable to their original condition upon termination of operations to the maximum extent practicable,” the lawsuit says, and the oil and gas industry has not done that.
     “The law is the law, and the law hasn’t changed since 1978,” Carmouche said. “I think what has changed is parishes now believe it is their fiduciary duty to uphold the law.”

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