Last Modified: Friday, May 25, 2012 2:53 PM
BATON ROUGE — The House approved legislation Thursday that gives the Port of Lake Charles legal authority to construct, operate and maintain the Calcasieu River ship channel.
The vote was 94-0. The Senate earlier approved the measure 35-0. The bill goes back to the Senate for concurrence in amendments added by the House and then to the governor.
Sponsors of the legislation are Sens. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, and Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings, and Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles.
The port is actually acting as an agency for the state in maintaining the channel. It secures rights-of-way on which to deposit dredging spoils that are collected when the channel is being dredged to maintain its width and depth. The channel runs through Calcasieu and Cameron parishes and into the Gulf of Mexico.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for oversight of channel maintenance.
Act 66 of the 1960 Legislature made the state responsible for channel maintenance. However, Jimmie Davis, governor in 1962, through an executive order, made the Port of Lake Charles responsible for maintaining the 400-foot channel width and 40-foot depth.
The bill approved by the House puts that authority into the statutes. However, Morrish said the port is still acting as an agency for the state.
Cameron Parish officials initially opposed the legislation and negotiations have been ongoing since it was introduced. Changes to the bill to satisfy most of those concerns were amended into the measure by Rep. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, who represents Cameron Parish.
The Port of Lake Charles has been purchasing and leasing land along the channel in order to have a place to deposit spoils.
In 1999, the port bought property near Hackberry for spoil deposits. Some of that property was subsequently leased to Sempra for its liquefied natural gas project, and the port receives revenues from the lease.
Cameron Parish officials objected to development of the property, insisting the port's actions were illegal. They filed suit over the project.
The Cameron district court agreed, but that ruling was overturned by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal in 2010. It upheld the lease.
Amendments by Hensgens say the only property in Cameron Parish where the port can undertake port activities is on the Sempra property.
Port activities are defined in the bill as acquiring or leasing property for the construction, operation or maintenance of docks, wharfs, sheds, slips, canals, machinery or industrial plants or facilities for the handling of cargoes or materials of any type.
Maintenance of the channel isn't considered a port activity.
The legislation says the Port of Lake Charles can conduct port activities on property in Cameron Parish but only if it has an intergovernmental agreement or cooperative agreement with the approval of the Cameron Parish Police Jury.
Any expropriation suits filed by the Port of Lake Charles to carry out its channel maintenance duties would have to be filed in the Cameron Parish district court.
If the port decides to sell property it may have purchased or expropriated in Cameron Parish, the Cameron Police Jury would have first right to purchase the property. However, in some instances the previous owner of the property would be first in line to buy the property back and the Police Jury would be next in line.