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Leave coastal lawsuit alone

Last Modified: Sunday, April 27, 2014 12:58 PM

By Jim Beam / American Press

Louisiana’s coastline is disappearing while Gov. Bobby Jindal and some members of the Legislature are trying to destroy the credibility of one of this nation’s foremost authorities on what it will take to stop the destruction and repair the damage. He’s John Barry, an accomplished author and authority on water-related issues.

Barry’s best-known work is his 1997 book, “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.” The National Academies of Sciences in 2006 invited him to give the Abel Wolman Distinguished Lecture on Water Resources, the only non-scientist ever to give that lecture.

Jindal and a number of state legislators are trying to discredit Barry because he was a member of a state levee board when it sued 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies for exploration and drilling practices that led to coastal erosion. The governor struck the first blow when he refused to reappoint Barry to the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.

The filing of the suit was the last straw for that board when the governor, his coastal adviser, the state Department of Natural Resources and those 97 companies refused to sit down and negotiate a reasonable settlement for the damage they did to the coast.

The industry isn’t the only cause of erosion, but is responsible for a significant part of the land loss because of the 10,000 miles that were dredged for canals and pipelines, Barry said. That allowed salt water to intrude and weaken and destroy the landscape, he said.

Barry said the levee board’s goal all along has been to get the industry to sit down and help resolve the issue and the role it should play. He said the companies should fix that part of the problem they caused.

Unfortunately, there has been zero leadership from the governor’s office. It was a golden opportunity for Jindal to demonstrate he is a caring and competent chief executive. He could have gotten all of the parties together and worked out a settlement, but he is choosing instead to try and derail the levee board’s effort to find a way to save the coast.

Jindal said the board didn’t have authority to sue the 97 companies. However, state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell disagreed and talked about the suit last week when he was a guest on the Jim Engster Show on WRKF-FM in Baton Rouge.

Caldwell said he told the levee board as a political subdivision it had the right to hire its own attorney and execute a contract. The courts upheld his opinion, he said.

The oil and gas companies agreed when they signed leases and executed contracts with landowners that they would clean up when the jobs were completed, Caldwell said.

“And basically speaking, they never really did that,” he said.

There are some legitimate interests in the oil and gas companies that want to get the issue resolved, Caldwell said.

“Of course, the only reason that they would move is that you get sued, you get a trial date, and you have to do something about it,” he said. “But I have faith in the oil and gas industry that they are going to finally do something because it is in their best economic interest to do so, and now.”

Meanwhile, the Legislature is moving in the opposite direction. Nearly a dozen measures have been filed that are designed to derail the suit. If they succeed, the oil and gas companies won’t have a reason to sit down and work out a settlement.

Those who are defending the oil and gas companies have seized upon a favorite target in situations like these that always resonates with John Q. Public. It’s those greedy lawyers.

The attorneys representing the levee board were hired on a contingency basis, which means they would get part of any court award or financial settlement and nothing if there weren’t a settlement. Barry said the levee board didn’t want to sue, but when it became a last resort the members had no other choice.

Levee board attorneys have since offered to waive fees they are owed if the oil and gas companies agree to pay “mutually agreeable attorneys’ fees.” The industry said that doesn’t go far enough.

I have never been a fan of contingency fee contracts, and have criticized them on numerous occasions. Anyone who doubts that need only ask some of the local attorneys who became overnight millionaires after the state settled with the tobacco companies.

This time, the potential benefits to our coastline that could result from this suit or a settlement with the companies far outweigh the attorney issue. This isn’t a situation like climate change. We know our coast is disappearing because we can see it slipping away.

I have met with John Barry and am convinced he truly has his state’s best interests at heart. He stands to gain nothing from any of this. However, those of us who love this state will reap the rewards if Barry, his supporters, the state and the oil and gas companies are successful at stopping the erosion and restoring out coastline.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or

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