Historic Lawsuit Seeks Damages from Oil Companies for Louisiana Wetlands Losses

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Louisiana wetlands fouled with BP’s oil in 2010

By Glynn Wilson

It’s the height of hurricane season along the Gulf Coast, a time of year when the threat of a major weather disaster hangs like a dark cloud over the psyches of people especially in Louisiana and my old stomping grounds of New Orleans, where a novel new lawsuit against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies may be rattling the expensive crystal in big oil’s boardrooms from Houston to London to DuBai.

According to court documents and media reports, the eastern division of Southeast Louisiana’s Flood Protection Authority has filed a lawsuit in the New Orleans Civil District Court asking for an order that the companies immediately begin filling in canals, restoring wetlands, and providing money to compensate for past damage to coastal wetlands from the dredging of canals used for access to build and maintain oil and natural gas wells in the oil rich region of Southern Louisiana.

According to reporting from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the levee district is seeking to recover $14.6 billion used for improvements to the system in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by the Corps of Engineers, as well as future storm surge protection funding.

“We are looking to the industry to fix the part of the problem that they created,” John Barry, vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, said. “We’re not asking them to fix everything. We only want them to address the part of the problem that they created.”

Even Lt. General Russel L. Honore, the commanding figure who got famous directing military relief efforts across the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, has written a column saying the oil industry has a “duty to repair the damage it did to these wetlands, under the provisions of dredging permits and laws dating back more than a century.”

“They also had a moral obligation to leave the land in as good a condition as they received it,” General Honore said. “Unfortunately, their obligations have not been met.”

Now a lawsuit of this nature would probably be considered dead on arrival if it had been filed in Alabama, considering the pro-big business nature of the courts here. But in the land of French Common Law in Louisiana, who knows? It might just have a chance, at least of another settlement like the case against British Petroleum for its role in the BP Gulf Oil Disaster of 2010.

Alfred Sunseri, owner and president of the P&J Oyster Co., had a letter printed in The Advocate of Baton Rouge asking: “Why should the taxpayers of Louisiana be burdened with the expense to repair damages the oil and gas companies caused when they’ve reaped the financial benefit of exploiting our oil and gas nonrenewable resources?”

But predictably, the Republican governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, has come out against the lawsuit, even though he has talked the talk about saving Louisiana’s wetlands in the past. You may recall Jindal as a possible Republican contender for vice president or even president, mainly due to his willingness to tout laissez-faire policies of the so-called “free market,” the cattle call for Republican candidates everywhere for the past three decades even though everybody who is anybody knows there is no such thing as a “free” market and that hands-off government deregulation policies simply do not work and lead to disasters, like the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf.

“I was surprised that the governor who has, time and time again, talked about the need to restore coastal Louisiana, and this is just another way we can restore coastal Louisiana by getting these oil companies to repair the damage that they’ve caused to our wetlands, is attacking the efforts of the Southeast Flood Protection Authority,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley, the organizing representative for the Sierra Club in Louisiana. “How long will we allow the oil and gas industries continue to destroy Louisiana’s critical wetlands? And when the next massive hurricane hits, what will help protect the millions living along the coast?”

He and other activists have already gathered almost 10,000 signatures on a petition urging Jindal to stand up for the wetlands and not fight the lawsuit politically.

But I must add that with the inevitability of global warming and climate change and rising sea levels, protecting the wetlands of Louisiana is going to get harder and more expensive every year, as I wrote for the Dallas Morning News and The Southerner magazine back in 2004.

Global Warming Makes Saving Lousiana’s Wetlands Hard

Why shouldn’t the oil companies pay their fair share?

This has been an ongoing controversy for many years. But never has there been such a direct threat to the oil companies and their domain over southern Louisiana since I first started hearing about the issue and writing about it in the 1980s.

Stay tuned to see if the courts agree — or if the influence of the oil money on Republican politics in Louisiana will trump the environment and the people again as it always has in the past.

© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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