Covering Louisiana

Dec 18, 2013 4:14 PM by AP

Hearing: Which court should hear coastal lawsuit?

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A legal tug-of-war continued Wednesday in a state levee board's lawsuit against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies over the erosion of wetlands that protect the New Orleans area from hurricanes.

The courtroom was so full of lawyers that extra chairs nearly filled the aisle as U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown heard arguments about whether to return the case to Orleans Parish Civil District Court, where the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed it in July.

She did not indicate when she will rule.

The board is holding the companies accountable under state law for the loss of wetlands in a coastal buffer zone, and federal laws are not in dispute, James Swanson, one of the board's attorneys, told Brown.

He did not go into details of the lawsuit, which alleges that dredging and maintenance for oil and gas canals and pipelines let in corrosive saltwater, killing plants that anchored the wetlands so that waves swept away hundreds of thousands of acres of coastal land.

Attorneys for Chevron USA Inc. got the suit moved to federal court in August, arguing that federal laws govern many of its claims. Since then, lawyers have filed hundreds of pages of arguments and exhibits just on the question of which court should hear the case.

"We're not just talking about coastal Louisiana - we're talking about the coastal United States," Robert Meadows, one of Chevron's attorneys, told the judge Wednesday.

He said the board is trying to make the companies fill thousands of miles of canals and plant vegetation on the recreated land. "That relief absolutely cannot be granted without the permission and oversight of the federal government," he said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has blasted the lawsuit as a windfall for trial lawyers and his coastal protection chief, Garret Graves, said the suit would undermine Louisiana's work with the industry to rebuild wetlands. An association of state levee districts voted to oppose the suit.

Since then, however, two coastal parishes heavily dependent on the industry have filed lawsuits of their own raising similar issues.

Earlier this month, the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association sued the state's attorney general, accusing him of illegally approving the Southeast Louisiana board's contract with lawyers who filed its lawsuit.

The association contends that Buddy Caldwell had no authority to approve the contract and that the suit will have "a chilling effect on the exploration, production, development and transportation" of Louisiana's oil and gas.

Louisiana has lost about 1,500 square miles of coastal wetlands since 1930 and continues to lose about 30 square miles a year - nearly a football field every half-hour. Fixes, including river diversion projects meant to replenish the wetlands with silt, are estimated to cost in the tens of billions.

There is little dispute that oil and gas activity has contributed to the loss, but estimates vary on how much is caused by the canals that crisscross the wetlands and how much by federal flood control projects that send the Mississippi River's silt out into the Gulf of Mexico rather than into wetlands.

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