Senate votes to block levee board suit

Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Southeast Louisiana levee boards should be stripped of their authority to file lawsuits against the oil and gas industry for environmental damage, the Louisiana Senate decided Wednesday.
The bill, supported by Gov. Bobby Jindal, strikes at the lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East alleging that the drilling activities of 97 oil and gas companies damaged Louisiana’s coast and vulnerable wetlands.
Lawsuit supporters will have to turn their attention to the House in their ongoing battle with the Jindal administration and the oil and gas industry, after senators voted 24-13 for the bill by Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin.
“I do not agree with the levee board lawsuit. This bill is designed to extinguish that,” Allain acknowledged under questioning.
Backers of the lawsuit say the industry hasn’t sufficiently been held accountable for damage done by dredging for canals and pipelines. Jindal and industry leaders say the lawsuit is an unfair attack on a valuable industry and a windfall for trial lawyers.
Opponents of Allain’s bill said it would inappropriately meddle in something that should be decided in court.
Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, said while he wasn’t “a big fan of the lawsuit,” the Legislature shouldn’t be retroactively trying to kill legal actions that lawmakers don’t like or think was inappropriately filed.
“There is litigation pending, and there is a venue and an opportunity pending ... to make those arguments and to win. This ain’t the place,” Martiny said.
But Martiny’s attempt to exempt the pending lawsuit from the bill narrowly failed, with senators voting 18-19 for it.
Another proposal aimed at voiding the flood authority’s lawsuit also won Senate support earlier this session. It hasn’t yet been heard in the House.
Allain’s proposal would define which governmental entities can bring legal claims about management of Louisiana’s coastal zones to entities designated in the Coastal Zone Management Act. The levee boards aren’t on the list.
While the bill wouldn’t void the levee board lawsuit outright, supporters of the measure say it would offer a legal argument for someone seeking to have the lawsuit thrown out.
Allain, a large landowner, said he was concerned the levee board lawsuit could also make landowners liable for damage claims, and he said that was his main reason for handling the bill.
The proposal wouldn’t affect similar lawsuits filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes against oil and gas companies.
The measure also would dictate how any money received from a successful claim by a state or local government agency alleging environmental violations in Louisiana’s coastal zones should be spent. It would be earmarked for coastal restoration and hurricane protection.

By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press

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