Whistleblower gets justice in Louisiana DNR corruption case

The wheels of justice turn slowly, but the good news is that they still turn — even in the cesspool of political corruption that is my home state of Louisiana. Many times on this website, I’ve written about the uselessness of the state’s regulatory agencies — which basically exist to aid and abet Big Oil and Gas, and not the average citizen or Louisiana’s fragile environment. The worst offender, we’ve seen time and time again, is the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, which for much of its history has labored to exploit natural resources, not protect them.

A Louisiana “landman” named Dan Collins learned this lesson the hard way. A surveyor of property lines, intimately familiar with Louisiana’s intricate bayous, wetlands and coastal waterways, Louisiana DNR had contracted with Collins for a number of years. But midway through the 2000s, Collins came to realize that DNR was running dredging projects in the name of water-quality protection that were in fact a cover for property owners and oil and gas companies seeking to exploit natural resources — and running roughshod of the law in doing so.

The scheme that Collins uncovered was a complicated one:

In  2005, Bayou Postillion, which is located in the protected wetlands of the Basin, was dredged in excess of 150-200 feet wide in certain areas by a length of about three miles. The project was part of the Atchafalaya Basin Program in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and used Collins’ land services in the process, under the guise of improving the waterway.

In February 2007, Collins and his firm performed contract services for a second project called the Bayou Pigeon Water Quality Project, which also involved publicly funded dredging in the same area. Later that year, Collins found himself at the North American Prospect Expo in Houston where by sheer chance he saw oil and gas prospects being advertised for the same area.

“I just found it coincidental,” says Collins. “They were actually promoting oil and gas deals [for Bayou Postillion] at this trade show.”

When Collins returned home to do some digging, he discovered that the state of Louisiana spent upwards of $1 million on dredging only to retain ownership of a mere 25 feet in the middle of the bayou channel — within the actual waterway — from the mouth of the bayou for a considerable distance that essentially created toll road conditions for commercial barge traffic, which are typically about 50 feet in width. This in effect restricted the public from navigating from bank to bank without crossing an invisible boundary line within the waterway.

According to Collins, the publicly funded dredging project being promoted as a water quality project for fishermen and crawfishermen was, in fact, being used for the primary purpose of giving access to oil and gas exploration for the benefit of private landowners and oil companies.

The period of these abuses started with the Democratic regime of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and continued after the election in 2007 of a Republican, Bobby Jindal. Collins told high-ranking officials in DNR about the scheme, including the commissioner, Scott Agnelle, who worked in both administration. At first, there seemed to be considerable interest in his charges — from Agnelle and others at DNR, from the incoming Jindal administration, and even from the FBI.

But the interest was short-lived. The Jindal administration claimed the case was an engineering dispute and not a matter of public corruption. The FBI also didn’t pursue the matter, and environmentalists who sued to halt the Atchafalaya Basin project, based on part on Collins’ allegations, were stymied in the courts. Collins was not immediately rewarded for his honesty; to the contrary, he saw his work from the DNR, which had been a major source of income, dry up. In 2010, he filed his own lawsuit against the agency, claiming he was being punished for his efforts as a whistleblower.

Earlier this winter, a jury of his peers agreed with Collins:

A Baton Rouge jury awarded a whistleblower $750,000 because the state Department of Natural Resources retaliated against him for reporting a state-funded dredging project that helped landowners develop oil-and-gas leases.

Dan Collins, a Baton Rouge landman, was under contract to the agency as a land research consultant when he reported his concerns about the Bayou Postillion dredging project in Iberia Parish. The water quality improvement project was actually a million-dollar, state-funded oil-and-gas access canal project, Collins said, one that benefitted a family of landowners along the bayou.

The landowners and Natural Resources have steadfastly denied those allegations.

“It reads like a John Grisham novel,” Collins said. “It’s so remarkable. … It was total obstruction once I uncovered it. It was total obstruction all the way to the top, all the way to the Governor’s Office.”

It’s exhilarating to see Collins gain justice in the matter, but the verdict in the case also raises some tough questions, for the state of Louisiana and for others. Why were the FBI and other agencies so quick to dismiss the notion of criminal charges in a case in which there was such major wrongdoing alleged? What role did officials in the Jindal administration play in continuing these improper schemes?

It is good news for the people in that Louisiana has a brand new governor in John Bel Edwards, and an opportunity to make a clean break from its tangled past. The Louisiana DNR doesn’t just need a few new people at the top, but the agency needs a completely new culture. The money that was awarded to whistleblower Dan Collins is significant, but the cost to Louisiana’s environment from the state’s pro-Big Oil policies has been impossible to calculate.

For an in-depth analysis of the Dan Collins case, please read: http://theind.com/article-22863-Atchafalaya-antics-alive-and-well.html

For a report on Collins’ $750,000 jury verdict, check out: http://theadvocate.com/news/14287541-123/jury-awards-whistleblower-750k

Learn more about the long battle for environmental justice in Louisiana and the Deep Soththe Deepwater Horizon spill in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on Americahttp://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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