NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A south Louisiana flood prevention board's lawsuit against oil and gas companies is an assault on a vital job-producing industry and throws a monkey wrench into a coordinated state effort to save and restore Louisiana's eroding coast, the state's top coastal official told a legislative panel Wednesday.
"I'm not saying anyone deserves a pass," Garret Graves said during a joint meeting of the House and Senate transportation committees in Baton Rouge. But, he questioned the legality of the lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies.
He also said oil and gas companies have provided land rights and donated money and in-kind services to coastal restoration efforts. "That relationship has just frozen," Graves said. "And projects that were actually underway now are going to be impeded because of this lawsuit."
He called the unprecedented SLFPAE's suit a "stovepipe" approach that focuses on just one of many causes of coastal erosion, among them levee projects by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that have cut off sediment rich river flows to the coast.
Backers of the lawsuit said the industry has done much for the state but hasn't been held sufficiently accountable for the damage done by dredging for canals and pipelines that have contributed greatly to the loss of wetlands that serve as a natural buffer against hurricane storm surge.
Stephen Estopinal, treasurer of the SLFPAE, likened the oil companies to free-spending rock stars who provided a boost to a local economy when they arrive for a concert.
"The businessmen make money. The people who sell things make money. The rock band makes millions of dollars, but before they leave they trash the hotel room," Estopinal said during the meeting, held in a state Capitol committee room and carried live on the Internet. "I think the guy that owns the hotel room ought to have the rock band pay to fix it up."
Gov. Bobby Jindal and Graves assailed the lawsuit as a boon to trial lawyers as soon as it was filed last month. The suit had a sympathetic ear from some at Wednesday's hearing but most lawmakers who spoke were either skeptical or openly hostile to the lawsuit.
"Your job as a levee authority is not to hustle money," Rep. Christopher Leopold, R-Belle Chasse, told SLFPAE members.
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