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2 parishes file suits against oil companies

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Two southeast Louisiana parishes filed multiple lawsuits against numerous oil and gas companies Tuesday, claiming they failed to restore damage their operations did to coastal areas while releasing toxic pollutants, in violation of state law.
    
Attorneys for Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes said the lawsuits were filed in state district courts Tuesday. Copies were released Tuesday evening.
    
The lawsuits - 21 in Plaquemines, seven in Jefferson - allege a variety of environmental law violations, including operating unpermitted waste pits and the dredging of canals without proper permits and without using techniques aimed at preventing erosion and encroachment of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico.

Bob Marshall, who covers coastal and environmental issues for The Lens, says it's a push for help by the parishes that have been left with hurricane damage and need better storm protection.

"We want these extra levees," Marshall said. "The corps and the federal government are telling us, and Congress is saying, 'we're not going to pay for them.' So, where do we get the money? That has been the basic argument of the local flood protection authority and, of course, the governor and the CPRA have opposed that."

Exact monetary amounts aren't mentioned in the suits, which ask for "costs necessary to clear, revegetate, detoxify and otherwise restore" specified coastal areas in the two parishes.
    
Parish officials contacted Tuesday afternoon referred calls to the lawyers.
    
The lawsuits brought swift condemnation from Louisiana Oil and Gas Association president Don Briggs.
    
"These suits are more of the same," Briggs said in a news release. "Extort as much money from the oil and gas industry as possible, thus lining the pockets of a small group of trial lawyers."
    
The suits come months after a south Louisiana flood-control board filed its own lawsuit, now in federal court, over alleged wetlands loss caused by oil, gas and pipeline companies. That suit also was criticized by industry leaders and by Gov. Bobby Jindal and his top coastal official, Garret Graves.
    
Graves was more tempered in his reaction to the latest suits.
    
"Businesses should be operating in compliance with existing regulations," Graves said Tuesday evening. "We have asked the Department of Natural Resources to review the lawsuits and the permits in question."
    
Earlier this year, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed a lawsuit against more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies. It alleges that oil and gas activity in the wetlands is a major contributor to the loss of thousands of acres of coastal land that serve as a natural buffer against flooding from hurricanes. Corrosive salt water from a network of oil and gas access and pipeline canals has killed vegetation and swept away vast amounts of soil, the suit claims.
    
Jindal blasted the lawsuit and refused to reappoint two of the protection authority's board members who supported it. One of them, historian and author John Barry, had been the authority's main spokesman for the suit.
    
Graves said that suit interfered with the state's own comprehensive effort to fight coastal erosion. He noted several differences between the flood authority's effort and the lawsuits filed by the parishes. Among them: "There is no contingency contract that attempts to divert billions of dollars in public funds that otherwise could be used for restoration to enrich trial lawyers."
    
Graves had made similar statements when asked about the possibility local parishes might file such lawsuits.
    
Barry said this week that the lawyers working for the parishes would also get a high percentage of any award, just as Gladstone Jones, the attorney for the protection authority's case, would get.
    
"For him to get billions," Barry said of Jones, "two things would have to happen: Oil would have to pay many billions. That would be nice but is very unlikely. Also, in Louisiana, legal fees have to be considered reasonable. A fee in the billions would never be considered reasonable."

FOX 8 legal analyst Joe Raspanti said the new lawsuits may be more effective and more resistant to political interference.

"They may be able to pull this off," Raspanti said. "I mean, everybody that lives here and fishes and hunts here - we know what's gone on. The damages are real. They're parishes filing the suits and they don't have Gov. Jindal's politics mixed in."

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

 

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