Louisiana's Vermilion Parish is now the sixth coastal parish in the state suing the oil and natural gas industry for alleged damages to coastal wetlands.
The lawsuit was filed by Keith Stutes, district attorney for the 15th Judicial District. It targets 45 companies and puts Vermilion in league with the other parishes suing the industry: Plaquemines, Jefferson and Cameron.*
"While we all recognize the tremendous impact oil and gas activities have had on our local economy, every person who has ever fished, hunted and enjoyed the natural beauty of Vermilion Parish is aware of the environmental issues caused by oil and gas activities," Stutes said.
"The cleanup and restoration of these damages will create new and enormous economic and employment opportunities for the people of Vermilion Parish...restoring our coast and environment is an important economic impetus for our citizens. The message is simple: clean up the mess that you have made and restore our coast to its original condition."
Louisiana Oil and Gas Association President Don Briggs called the lawsuit "ill-conceived and divisive" and vowed to fight it.
"Over the years, oil and gas producers have invested billions in jobs, infrastructure and environmental sustainability projects across the state. Many of those investments are concentrated in Vermilion Parish," Briggs said. "That's why it is so disheartening that the district attorney and his trial lawyer friends have chosen to put the parish on such a dangerous path, ignoring the fact that this misguided effort could have significant economic consequences for many, many workers across the parish who are directly and indirectly supported by the industry."
Stutes cited the state's Coastal Zone Management Law, which was adopted by the legislature in 1978. Prior to the passage of this legislation, various rules, regulations, field orders and orders by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and the Louisiana Stream Control Commission were required to be followed by those in oil and gas exploration, production and transportation activities.
Under the 1978 law, parishes in the Coastal Zone Management Area could also establish local Coastal Zone Management plans. Vermilion chose not to do so, and, when parishes do not have a local plan, the 1978 law designates the local district attorney as the public official who is obligated to pursue recovery of damages that occur in the coastal zone for violations of the law, Stutes said.
The Vermilion lawsuit contends the named defendants did not comply with the law and/or rules and orders resulting in identifiable, specific, and substantial harm and that the defendants failed to comply with permits the defendants obtained to engage in coastal activities or failed to obtain coastal permits at all.
In all instances, it is contended the defendants failed to revegetate, refill, clean and detoxify and restore the impacted area to its original condition as required by state law.
Briggs called upon parish residents to oppose the action by Stutes. "These lawsuits will only divert critical time and resources away from the industry’s ongoing support of coastal restoration efforts," Briggs said.
"Every oil and gas producer in Louisiana operates under the comprehensive regulation of the [Louisiana] Department of Natural Resources. Through the department, there is already a rigorous administrative process in place to ensure that each and every coastal use permit in the state is in compliance with the Coastal Zone Management Act. Any issues or concerns regarding permit compliance can be addressed through the administrative review process without the excessive delays and exorbitant legal costs that come along with litigation."
For years, numerous lawsuits have been filed making claims concerning coastal erosion and degradation in Louisiana (see Daily GPI, Feb. 12; Dec. 17, 2013; July 25, 2013). Last March, the state attorney general intervened in 39 lawsuits emanating from Cameron, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes (see Daily GPI, March 16).
*Correction: In the original article, NGI incorrectly stated that St. Bernard and Lafourche parishes were among a number of parishes currently suing the industry. St. Bernard and Lafourche have only considered legal action. NGI regrets the error.