Something’s happening in South Louisiana, and the “Dirty Dozen” doesn’t get it


Every day, there’s more evidence that the healthy winds of change are blowing through Louisiana. That’s especially true in the southern part of the state which has been battered by events that have been both epic in scale — the BP oil spill and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina — and more prosaic, like the Bayou Corne sinkhole and the day-in, day-out toxins pumped into the atmosphere of our “Cancer Alley.” For decades, too many in the region were able and willing to ignore the many environmental slights, because the oil, gas and chemical industries have also been a source of jobs. But there comes a time when no job is worth the devastation of your homeland.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve written about the seeds of a true environmental movement in Louisiana — about people driven from their homes by the sinkhole and about clean-up workers still sick from their exposure to BP’s oil who are beginning to say enough is enough. We’ve seen the rise of environmental crusade led by a Louisiana folk hero, Gen. Russel Honore, and we saw a New Orleans levee board — created in the outcry after the post-Katrina flooding — do the once unthinkable and sue 97 oil and gas companies to compel them to repair the vital wetlands that they trashed.

One of the most hopeful signs has been taking place just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans in St. Tammany Parish, where officials have been caught off guard by the powerful public reaction to a company’s plan to frack for oil through the aquifer that is the source of drinking water for a large part of the state. Besieged local leaders have been looking to zoning codes and other measures to prevent fracking in the Mandeville area, raising the prospect of a rare victory for environmentalists.

Of course, the oil empire wasn’t going to take all of this sitting down. Even with the political tides shifting against them, Louisiana lawmakers who’ve been doing the bidding of Big Oil for decades have geared up for one last stand in 2014. Aided by millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, the legislature — with an expected assist from Gov. Bobby Jindal — is working to enact a law meant to stick a thumb in the eye of the Louisiana public, for now:

The Louisiana House on Thursday rejected the lawsuit filed against 97 oil and gas companies by a New Orleans levee board by approving legislation that would retroactively kill the litigation, which claims the companies caused environmental damage to the state’s wetlands.

The House voted 59 to 39 for Senate Bill 469, which would reach back and change the conditions under which the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, called SLFPA-E, could sue.

Here’s the most appalling thing about the vote: One dozen lawmakers from South Louisiana — representatives whose constituents are at much greater risk from hurricane damage because of decades of wetlands destruction by Big Oil, and who desperately need the massive reconstruction monies — voted to kill the lawsuit nonetheless. The New Orleans Gambit calls them the “Dirty Dozen,” and I couldn’t agree with them more:

Had the nine local representatives who voted for SB 469 opposed it on the House floor — or even if seven of the nine had opposed it — the measure would have died. In the House, 53 votes are needed to pass a bill. The House vote on SB 469 was 59-39. The nine local reps who voted for SB 469 clearly made the difference between passage and defeat of the measure, which by then had been made retroactive. The constituents of those local lawmakers are among those most vulnerable to hurricane-related flooding that indisputably has been exacerbated by the thousands of miles of canals that Big Oil has carved out of area wetlands.

The Dirty Dozen should pray that no hurricane pushes storm surges into their districts between now and their next election, because surveys show that more than 90 percent of voters in coastal Louisiana support the lawsuit. Even if their constituents remain high and dry between now and Election Day, the controversy over SB 469 has raised voter awareness exponentially of how much Big Oil controls the Louisiana legislative process.

Here are The Dirty Dozen:

Senate — Sens. John Alario, R-Westwego; Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville; and David Heitmeier, D-New Orleans.

House — Reps. Bryan Adams, R-Gretna; Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers; Robert Billiot, D-Westwego; Greg Cromer, R-Slidell; Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette; Chris Leopold, R-Belle Chasse; Nick Lorusso, R-New Orleans; John Schroder, R-Covington; and Julie Stokes, R-Kenner.

I pray that voters remember these names in the coming election, and with Gen. Honore and his “Green Army” on the prowl, there’s a good chance that they will. Meanwhile, not all hope is lost in Baton Rouge. The double-dealing and dishonesty over the measure has been so great that some in the state Senate — where the bill awaits final passage — are reported to have second thoughts about passing a version that would kill the lawsuit retroactively. Let’s hope enough of these key lawmakers find a conscience to do the right things — both morally and politically. 

Check out my May 22 blog post about fracking in St. Tammany Parish:

Read the Advocate’s report on legislation that would prevent the eastern levee board from suing oil and gas companies:

For more information from the Gambit on south Louisiana’s “Dirty Dozen” lawmakers, please read:

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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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