Oil and Gas Industry Scrambles to Deny Louisiana Landowners Money to Cleanup Contamination


Forces are gathering in Louisiana. On one side are oil companies and their boosters in the state government. On the other side are landowners with property long contaminated by toxic oil sludge – an insidious industrial witch’s brew of dangerous chemicals from lead to benzene to radioactive radium-226. Landowners, who leased their private property to oil producers, are now suing those companies for contaminating their land.

In all too predictable fashion, the Louisiana oil and gas industry has ramped up an aggressive (even vicious) campaign to deny landowners the money necessary to properly cleanup the toxic material companies have left behind at sites across the state. In some of these “environmental degradation” cases, dubbed “legacy lawsuits” by the industry, the contamination took place years ago (even decades), and many landowners are still searching for a remedy.

As landowners turn to the courts as a last resort, the Louisiana oil and gas industry is now wielding its immense political influence to force legislation that will deny landowners relief. Consider this from a recent Baton Rouge Advocate report by Mark Ballard:

[Eighty-nine-year-old W.T. “Pete”] Antley said he doesn’t know anything about the legislation or the intense fight between oil companies and the lawyers of landowners, like himself, who sue. He simply had wanted for years to clean an open pit near his house.

Antley said, for decades, an open pit just beyond the boundary of his property got messier over time. “Deer would fall into it, get covered in oil and they couldn’t get out,” Antley said. Trees and bushes began to die on his property.

When Antley tried to do something about it, he could never find out which operator to call. Companies routinely sold claims to other companies, which over the years could mean several companies were involved.

One day while at the Robinson Baptist Church, Antley said he heard a neighbor talk about how lawsuits were successful in forcing oil companies to clean up messes that dot this area.

In many of these pollution suits, as is the case with Mr. Antley, what needs cleaning up are old unlined holding ponds or pits, in which drillers would dump the toxic water and sludge that comes to the earth’s surface with oil. One of the primary points of contention between landowners and oil companies is what “clean” means. Landowners want “clean” to mean their kids can play in the dirt, while oil companies want a much looser interpretation of “clean” (or lack thereof). More from the Advocate report:

William Coenen III disagrees [with the oil companies]. He is a Baton Rouge lawyer who represents many of the Delhi Field landowners who live near his boyhood home in Rayville.

Coenen said oil companies generally want the sites designated as industrial, which require about a foot of soil to be scraped off for the state to call it clean.

But the uses of the land the state designates as clean to an industrial standard is fairly limited, Coenen said. For instance, a landowner wants to build a house or a subdivision on the property. The bank will order an environmental assessment that will come back as “polluted,” even on land designated as “clean” to an industrial level, Coenen said.

The landowner would not get financing under those circumstances, he said.

In addition to trucking off the fluids in the pond, it is important to scoop out the contaminated soil into which the oilfield waste has been seeping for decades, he said.

“It’s important for us that the property be restored to unrestricted use,” Coenen said. “You need to make it safe for kids to play in the dirt.”

The toxicity these landowners are dealing with poses a serious health and public safety risk. Lead, radium and arsenic are just a few of the substances oil companies are fighting to leave on private property across the state. More from the Advocate:

Randy Schexnayder, superintendent of Vermilion Parish schools since 2007, said news of contaminated sites around the state worried some members of the school board…

“The board determined that it needed to, at least, do some preliminary studies,” said Woody Woodruff, the school board’s in-house legal counsel.

The East White Lake property is in a lake surrounded by a swamp. The actual location of oilfield activity is hidden by vegetation around which people fish and crab. “It’s a beautiful area. If you’re fishing in the lake, you don’t know. That’s the danger,” Woodruff said.

“They (anglers and sportsmen who use the lake) don’t have the knowledge that we have, and we didn’t want to watch our neighbors get sick,” said Schnexayder, adding that arsenic was found in 22 crabs caught around the site.

Arsenic, anyone? Oil companies have left behind a legacy of toxicity across Louisiana. I can tell you that from experience.

I’ve been trying these kinds of cases for more than two decades, and I can tell you that this is very real contamination, and it has grave health risks. I tried the very first case of this kind, Street v. Chevron, back in the mid-1980s in Mississippi.

Chevron contaminated the private property of the Street family with radioactive oilfield waste – primarily radium-226. One of the family members who lived on the property suffered a “spontaneous hip fracture.” She sat down one day and her pelvis split in two. According to doctors, the break was caused by severe radium-induced bone necrosis. Karen was only 26 years old at the time, and six months pregnant. Chevron settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

We’ll be keeping an eye on this story as the legal fireworks continue to intensify this week, so stay tuned.

Read the full Advocate article by Mark Ballard here: http://theadvocate.com/csp/mediapool/sites/Advocate/assets/templates/FullStoryPrint.csp?cid=2435055&preview=y

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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