Much of the work that I do as an environmental attorney based in my hometown of New Orleans is animated by one thing: Big Oil has run roughshod over the Gulf Coast, and especially the state of Louisiana, for more than a century. Whether it’s oil companies dumping radioactive pipe on unsuspecting clean-up workers and pouring radium-laced water into unlined pits, or leaving behind a massive sinkhole in the heart of the bayou, or unsafe practices that create an environmental catastrophe like BP’s Deepwater Horizon fiasco, the energy giants have left an unsightly mark on a region of great natural beauty.
Arguably, over the long haul, nothing has been more destructive than the assault on Louisiana’s thousands of square miles of marshy coastal wetlands. These Southern swamplands are also are natural protection against hurricane tides and floods, and for the last 100 years oil and gas production has played a huge role in making our wetlands disappear — from construction of too many canals to reckless polluting. And our government, typically in the pocket of Big Oil, has not fought back.
Louisiana officials filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against dozens of energy companies, hoping that the courts will force them to pay for decades of damage to fragile coastal wetlands that help buffer the effects of hurricanes on the region.
“This protective buffer took 6,000 years to form,” the state board that oversees flood-protection efforts for much of the New Orleans area argued in court filings, adding that “it has been brought to the brink of destruction over the course of a single human lifetime.”
The suit, which was denounced by Louisiana’s governor, Bobby Jindal, was filed in civil district court in New Orleans by the board of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. The board argues that the energy companies, including BP and Exxon Mobil, should be held responsible for fixing damage done by cutting thousands of miles of oil and gas access and pipeline canals through the wetlands. It alleges that the network functioned “as a mercilessly efficient, continuously expanding system of ecological destruction,” killing vegetation, eroding soil and allowing salt water into freshwater areas.
“What remains of these coastal lands is so seriously diseased that if nothing is done, it will slip into the Gulf of Mexico by the end of this century, if not sooner,” the filing stated.
This is fantastic news, and it prompts a couple of additional reactions. One, as others have pointed out, Big Oil had help from the folks who were supposed to be holding them accountable. Those would be federal agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These bodies issue the oil companies the permits to drill and cut channels through these sensitive wetlands — but only on the condition they be restored to their original state when the drilling was completed. That didn’t happen was yet another massive failing of the regulatory culture here in the Gulf — and so this lawsuit should also be a signal to the feds to get their house in order.
Second, I just want to call attention to the shrill and petulant reaction of Gov. Jindal to news of the lawsuit. In the middle of hurricane season, when dread rises over the possible of another Katrina or worse with out protective layer of wetlands nearly gone, our Republican governor would rather try to score political points by bashing “the trial lawyers.” Seriously? The bottom line is this: the governor had a choice to choose here between protecting Louisiana’s environment or standing up for Big Oil. Now there’s no mistaking which side Bobby Jindal is on.
For coverage of the Louisiana wetlands lawsuit against Big Oil from the New York Times, please read: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/25/us/louisiana-agency-to-sue-energy-companies-for-wetland-damage.html
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