CHALMETTE, La. (AP) — A south Louisiana flood control board isn't ready to give up yet on its lawsuit against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies over coastal wetlands damage, despite a new law aimed at squelching the suit.
A motion to kill the suit died on a 4-4 tie vote Thursday during a meeting of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. That board caused political shock waves in oil-industry dependent Louisiana last year when it filed the suit, saying coastal oil and gas drilling and the related dredging of canals has done decades of damage to coastal wetlands that provide a hurricane buffer for the New Orleans area.
Gov. Bobby Jindal opposed the lawsuit from the moment it was announced and has been replacing members of the nine-member board as vacancies have occurred. His four newest appointees — Joe Hassinger, Jeff Angers, Kelly McHugh and Tyrone Ben — voted to kill the suit.
Voting to allow the suit to continue were Stephen Estopinal, G. Paul Kemp, Wilton Tilly and Richard Luettich.
Absent was member Louis Wittie.
Legislation recently signed into law by Jindal was aimed at retroactively killing the lawsuit. Oil companies haven't signaled their next move but Gladstone Jones, one of the attorneys hired by the board to press the suit, said he expects lawyers for the defendant companies to try to have the suit dismissed based on the law. Jones and other lawsuit supporters argue that the law is unconstitutional and will be challenged.
Hassinger on Thursday repeatedly said the lawsuit never should have been filed, saying the board was secretive as it planned the suit and should have consulted with the governor and lawmakers.
"Independence doesn't mean that we work in a vacuum," he said.
Hassinger assailed the "poison pill" provision of the board's contract with its lawyers requiring that their costs be covered if the board quits the suit. He said the suit should be ended immediately so the costs won't continue to mount. The costs so far were estimated along a broad range by board members -- anywhere from close to $3 million to well over $11 million so far.
The lawyers get nothing if the suit is pursued and is lost. They get significant percentages of a potential multi-billion damage award if they win.
Defenders of the lawsuit included historian and author John Barry — one of the first board members replaced by Jindal after the suit was filed. He said the closed-door meetings that led to the filing of the lawsuit last year were done in accordance with the Louisiana's Open Meetings Law's provisions regarding litigation. The lawsuit, he said, was in keeping with the SLFPA's authority. "It's about protecting lives and property."
Luettich said other branches of government, and the companies being sued, have had decades to act.
"Enough time has passed that it's clear to me that the political will hasn't been there, and isn't there still, to deal with this issue," he said.
Tilly said he believes oil companies were close to coming to the table to negotiate until the legislation aimed at outlawing the suit was passed. Absent the lawsuit, there is no pressure on them to negotiate a settlement.
Greg Beuerman, spokesman for three of the major oil company defendants — Chevron, Shell and BP — disagreed with Tilly's assessment. He said the energy companies have been working with state coastal restoration officials for years.
"My clients are frozen in place by what's happening in this litigation," he said following the meeting.