St. John the Baptist Parish has filed a lawsuit blaming 13 oil and gas companies for decades of damage to its wetlands, District Attorney Bridget Dinvaut announced Wednesday (April 26). The suit, which lists Dinvaut and the state of Louisiana as plaintiffs, seeks to recover “damages, restoration costs and actual restoration.”
“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 St. John the Baptist Parish is also aware of the environmental issues caused by oil and gas activities,” Dinvaut said. “My message is simple: Clean up the mess that you have made and restore our coast to its original condition.”
The suit, filed in the 40th Judicial District Court in Edgard, accuses the defendants of causing “substantial damages to land and water bodies, geological formations and cultural and economic opportunities in violation of Louisiana state law, rules and regulations.”
This makes St. John the sixth Louisiana parish to file one or more lawsuits against oil and gas interests in an attempt to get them to restore damage caused to wetlands by their exploration and production operations or to be compensated for the damages. The other parishes are Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. Bernard, Cameron and Vermilion. Lafourche Parish has hired a law firm to represent it in potential coastal lawsuits but has so far opposed efforts to file its own suit.
All of the suits have been filed on behalf of the individual parishes by the Baton Rouge law firm of Talbot, Carmouche & Marcello on a contingency basis. That means the Talbot firm would likely be paid its expenses and a portion of any settlement, if successful.
In April 2016, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that he had intervened on behalf of the state in all of the oil and gas suits that had been filed at that time to “ensure that the interests of the state of Louisiana are fully protected.” In an interview last week, Edwards said: “I believe that there were activities related to exploration and production undertaken by the oil and gas companies that did cause coastal land loss, particularly through pipeline construction and canals that allowed too much saltwater to come in and undermine the vegetation, for example. Those canals were not filled in and the pipelines were not constructed appropriately according to what the law and the regulation and the permit requirements.”
In May 2016, Edwards also warned other parishes that they should file similar lawsuits or he would file them on behalf of the state. That came after representatives of the oil and gas industry refused a request from his office to negotiate settlements of the existing and potential additional suits.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry asked to be allowed to prosecute the suits in state court. But he also tried to block efforts by Edwards to hire private law firms to represent the state in the suits. Landry has been opposed to fee arrangements that provide the private attorneys with a share of any settlement money.
Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, which represents many of the small energy firms that operate in coastal Louisiana, reiterated the group’s opposition to this and other parish damage suits.
“This is just more of the same from the same small group of trial lawyers,” Brigg said in response to a request for comment. “We know the biggest challenges facing this state now is loss of employment, particularly in the oil and gas industry. Now is the time to call on our state leaders to push back against theses frivolous and fallacious lawsuits and restore confidence in those companies wanting to invest in Louisiana.”
On Thursday, attorney John Carmouche of the Talbot firm said the Cameron and Vermilion cases were removed to federal court by the oil and gas defendants in an attempt to have them heard there, instead of in parish courts. A decision on a request by the parishes to return them to state courts is pending.
The St. Bernard Parish lawsuit also was removed to federal court and a decision on returning it to state court is pending. Various federal judges in New Orleans had earlier agreed to return all 21 suits filed by Plaquemines and 7 by Jefferson to state courts.
Oil and gas firms have refused to turn over documents requested by the Talbot firm in one of the 21 Plaquemines Parish cases, despite an order by the state judge to do so, Carmouche said. He said hearing on that production order is expected next Thursday.
Carmouche said that at least one of the individual lawsuits is likely to be ready for trial within a year to a year and a half.
“Before then, the defendants are going to have to make a decision on whether to try to sit down with the governor and the attorney general and try to resolve these cases,” he said.
In her news release explaining why the St. John suit was filed, Dinvaut said St. John continues to struggle with flooding. She implied that it might have been exacerbated by the oil and gas industry’s actions.
“The cleanup and restoration of these damages will create new and enormous economic and employment opportunities for the people of St. John the Baptist Parish. Restoring our coast and environment is an important impetus for our citizens,” she said. “Moreover, as district attorney, it is my fiduciary responsibility to see to it this law is enforced uniformly and the law is made to work with no show of favoritism.”
The suit argues that the defendants did not comply with either state law or state rules and orders, which resulted in damages. And it says they either failed to comply with permit requirements or did not obtain proper permits.
- Named as defendants are:
- Cambridge Energy Corporation
- Craig J. Sceroler Inc.
- Freeport-McMoRan Oil & Gas LLC
- Green Wilson Hicks III
- King W. Lanaux
- LLOG Exploration & Production Co. LLC
- Louisiana Exploration & Drilling Co.
- Marquee Corp.
- Mineral Ventures Inc.
- Palace Exploration Co.
- Shell Oil Co.
- Smith Production Co. of Mississippi
- Todd Oil Corp. of Louisiana Inc.
This story was updated at 11 a.m. with additional information about parish lawsuits filed against oil and gas firms. Updated at 2 p.m. with a comment from the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association..