Flood board votes to continue oil, gas lawsuit

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A New Orleans-area flood control board refused to back down Thursday from its lawsuit seeking damages from nearly 100 oil and gas companies over coastal erosion allegedly caused by dredging and digging for canals and pipelines. But the board offered an olive branch to the suit’s opponents, including Gov. Bobby Jindal and his coastal protection chief.

The decision to continue the suit was approved without opposition by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East after a closed session that lasted over three hours. The board then voted, again without opposition, to consider a 45-day suspension of what members termed “substantive” matters advancing the lawsuit — if after meeting with state officials they can come to an agreement to address the issues involved.

Board President Timothy Doody abstained, citing a potential conflict of interest with his law firm. He did not specify the possible conflict.

“It is an olive branch,” food authority vice president John Barry said after the meeting. “Remember what’s important: It’s solving the problem.”

Exactly when a suspension might begin was unclear. And what constitutes “substantive” work on the lawsuit was not defined. “We have to figure that out,” Barry said.

However, he emphasized that lawyers’ work on procedural issues — including whether the flood authority has the power to pursue such a suit — would continue even if some sort of suspension is agreed upon.

And, he said, a solution would have to involve “significant contributions” from the oil and gas industry.

Jindal has characterized the lawsuit as a windfall for trial lawyers. His top adviser on coastal protection, Garret Graves, has attacked it as a needless assault on an important Louisiana industry that could undermine the state’s comprehensive effort to fight coastal land loss. Oil and gas companies have provided land rights and donated money and in-kind services to coastal restoration efforts, Graves has said.

Graves met with SLFPAE board members during part of Thursday’s closed session. He did not comment afterward and was not present for the later votes.

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.

Opponents include Jindal, Graves, the oil and gas industry and numerous state lawmakers. The SLFPAE, which oversees three New Orleans area levee districts, even finds itself at odds with an association it belongs to along with all other state levee boards.

Barry took pains Thursday to compliment Graves’ and Jindal’s work on behalf of the coast. However, he and other SLFPAE board members reiterated that pressures from the industry or from a state government that depends on the industry for economic development and tax revenue, won’t deter them.

“We expected considerable blowback,” Barry said during the meeting. “We certainly have received considerable blowback.”

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