House supports bill to nullify levee board lawsuit

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The Louisiana House voted with the oil and gas industry Thursday, supporting a bill that seeks to void a lawsuit filed by a New Orleans area levee board against 97 oil and gas companies.

With the 59-39 House vote, the proposal is one step from passage. The Senate-backed bill must return to the Senate for consideration of changes that solidify the bill's intent to kill the lawsuit. Gov. Bobby Jindal supports the measure.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed a lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies, alleging their drilling activities damaged Louisiana's coast and vulnerable wetlands.

Lawsuit supporters say the industry hasn't sufficiently been held accountable for the damage done by dredging for canals and pipelines. Critics call it an attack on a valuable state industry, a boon for trial lawyers and a lawsuit that the levee board had no authority to file.

The bill by Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, would define which governmental entities can bring legal claims about management of Louisiana's coastal zones to entities designated in the Coastal Zone Management Act. Levee boards aren't on the list.

That would offer a legal argument to have the levee board's lawsuit thrown out. The bill specifies that its provisions "shall be applicable to all claims existing or actions pending."

Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, who handled the proposal in the House, said it protects industry from "rogue agencies" that file lawsuits without standing to do so.

"They shouldn't have even gone down this path," Robideaux said of the levee board.

Rep. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales, said a court should decide whether the board had the legal authority to file a lawsuit. Robideaux replied that he wanted to give the courts more information.

"This isn't about clarifying existing law," said Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, who voted against the measure. "The courts know how to read a law and apply it."

Edwards said if the lawsuit was frivolous and improperly filed, the oil and gas industry wouldn't be fighting so hard to pass Allain's bill. He and other opponents of the bill said it sought to immunize the industry from paying for damages they caused.

"It's our duty to protect our coast and not a special interest," said Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero.

Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, said the levee boards were created to build levees, not to sue for coastal restoration money. Robideaux said the oil and gas industry has paid Louisiana $80 billion in severance tax and royalty payments over the years. He said "attacking the industry" wasn't appropriate.

Edwards said if the industry doesn't help pay for the state's multibillion-dollar coastal restoration plan, taxpayers will be forced to pick up the tab.

"Asking oil and gas to follow the law is not being anti-oil and gas," he said.

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Online:

Senate Bill 469 can be found at www.legis.la.gov

The House vote: http://1.usa.gov/1pphbcC

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