Stop the polluters from taking back Louisiana


The next two years will be more critical for Louisiana and its beautiful yet fragile environment than any time in the state’s history. On one hand, the surge in oil and gas production across the United States is placing new pressures on my home state in the terms of more rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, more pipelines crisscrossing the state, more barges coming down our waterways and more tanker cars on our railroads — each posing new risks of a catastrophic accident. There are new chemical plants, new refineries and new oil and gas off-loading facilities — each posing more pollution threats to a state that is already famous for its “Cancer Alley.”

At the same time, more and more everyday citizens are getting fed up with Big Oil running the state. The wide swath of devastation caused by the BP oil spill in 2010, followed by other outrages such as the manmade sinkhole that is devouring a small town in Louisiana bayou country, is inspiring more folks than ever to fight back, on a variety of fronts. We’ve seen the groundbreaking move by a levee board in New Orleans that is suing 97 big oil and gas firms, demanding that they pay to restore the critical wetlands they’ve destroyed over the last century. Looking ahead to next year’s governor’s race, Gen. Russel Honore — a true American hero who restored confidence in those dark days after Hurricane Katrina — has organized a “Green Army” to crusade for environmental safeguards.

Needless to say, no one expected that Big Oil — which has viewed Louisiana as some kind of colonial fiefdom for decades — was going to take this sitting down. Sure enough, as the current legislative session in Baton Rouge heats up, Gov. Bobby Jindal — always in the tank for the energy giants — and his allies are trying to sell what they claim is “a compromise” on the longstanding battle over “legacy lawsuits” — the right of citizen property owners to sue for the pollution that took place on their property. Of course, the alleged “compromise” is tilted 99,9 percent in favor of Big Oil. That’s not all: The oil lobby has also backed legislation that would repeal the right of citizens to seek punitive damages from hazardous-waste polluters — even though the risk of such damages is often the only real tool to force these companies to be good citizens and protect the environment.

This was how Jindal and the oil lobby tried to spin their so-called “compromise” last week:

Surrounded by industry leaders and landowners, Jindal said legislation by state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, would strike the right balance.

The governor said the proposal would protect landowners’ interests while protecting industry from overly expensive and frivolous litigation.“This consensus is noteworthy in that it does a couple of very important things. One, it allows us to clean up our lands more quickly and efficiently in Louisiana.

That’s actually a lot of baloney. What the legislation really seeks to do is take legitimate claims out of the court system — where citizens can plead their case before a judge and a jury of their peers — and give most of the control over these claims to a bureaucratic state agency. In this case, that would be the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, or DNR. As you might expect, especially in a state like Louisiana that’s long been a tool of Big Oil, these regulatory agencies are stacked with key appointees who see things favorably for the energy companies, and are prone to pressure from lobbyists. Many of these regulators have come to state government directly from the oil companies through the so-called “revolving door,” and they will head back out to lucrative industry jobs as soon as their tenure in Baton Rouge is completed.

The DNR, which would now be overseeing these cases, negligently or intentionally allowed this illegal pollution to take place to begin with. Given its pro-business tilt, the agency is certain to decide — when cleanup and remediation is called for — to go with the cheapest and easiest options. What’s more, the fine print in Jindal’s so-called “compromise” bill actually tilts the playing field toward Big Oil in every way possible — awarding legal fees to industry lawyers when a case is tossed out, but not the reverse when the property owner is successful.

 There’s a larger principle at stake here. Most of us are still firm believers in the American way of justice. As my law partner Mike Stag pointed out the other day, restricting the right of citizens to sue over pollution is already the standard operating procedure somewhere else: In China. It’s no coincidence that today China is the most polluted nation in the world — its skies often an impenetrable orange soup of smog. Is that the kind of future that we want for Louisiana?

But we have the power to prevent that from happening. Remember, Big Oil is pushing this now because they are running scared — and worried that their clout in Baton Rouge will begin to shrink with the 2015 election. But we can’t even wait that long. We have to fight back today. This is a call for action: Please contact the appropriate Louisiana legislator if you can. Tell him or her in no uncertain terms that these two measures — HB 618, which would prevent punitive damages in toxic-waste lawsuits, and the Jindal plan on landowner pollution lawsuits — are bad for the people of Louisiana, and completely unacceptable. The environmental movement in this state is on the move, and we refuse to step backwards in 2014.

You can read more about the so-called “compromise” on pollution lawsuits here:

Here is a list of the key lawmakers:

HOUSE Judiciary Committee








Adams, Bryan




Arnold, Jeffery “Jeff”




Connick, Patrick




Edwards, John Bel




Foil, Franklin J.




Gaines, Randal L.




Garofalo, Raymond E.




Greene, Hunter




Harrison, Joe




James, Edward C. “Ted”




Jefferson, Patrick O.




Kleckley, Chuck




Landry, Nancy




Leger, Walt III




Leopold, Christopher J.




Mack, Sherman Q.




Moreno, Helena




Morris, John C. “Jay”




Shadoin, Robert E.




Thierry, Ledricka




Please contact the following and let them know you oppose the so-called legacy lawsuit compromise bill announced yesterday by Gov. Jindal. 









Jean -Paul J. Morrell




Dan “Blade” Morrish




Gerald Long




R.I. “Brett” Allain, II




Jack Donahue




Daniel “Danny” Martiny



© Smith Stag, LLC 2014 – All Rights Reserved

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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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