NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Louisiana parish's lawsuit against oil and gas companies over coastal wetland loss — litigation backed by Gov. John Bel Edwards — has been revived by the same state judge who dismissed it in August.
District Court Judge Stephen Enright Jr. had ruled in August that the lawsuit was premature because the parish first should have sought remedies through state regulators.
However, in an order dated Monday, Enright said the state Department of Natural Resources doesn't have the staff, funding or capability to conduct the thousands of "administrative enforcement actions" necessary to address the violations alleged by the parish.
Jefferson has filed seven such lawsuits against oil companies, claiming damage from abandoned open waste pits, the dumping of brine and oilfield waste dumped into marshes and the failure to fill in miles of canals companies dredged while drilling in delicate coastal areas.
Similar lawsuits have been filed by Plaquemines, Cameron, St. Bernard and Vermilion parishes. Also, a federal appeals court decision is pending in a lawsuit filed by a New Orleans-area flood control board that seeks damages from dozens of oil companies over damage to wetlands that form a hurricane buffer for the city. That suit was rejected by a federal judge, but an attempt to revive it is pending at the federal appeals court in New Orleans.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has said his administration will take a more active role in wetlands damage litigation and will pursue its own lawsuits against companies if other coastal parishes decide against suing. In a conference call Thursday, administration legal advisers said they believe Enright's order will lead to decisions by other parishes on whether and how to proceed.
Oil industry representatives have been harshly critical of the lawsuits.
The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association issued a joint statement Thursday in reaction to Enright's decision.
"Judge Enright's reversal is based entirely on assertions made by Gov. Edwards and DNR officials that the state doesn't have the staff, the funding or the capability to address permit violations alleged in the coastal lawsuits," the statement said. "Governor Edwards' and DNR's claim that they are incapable of addressing the alleged violations through the state's well established administrative enforcement process is absurd. DNR manages an annual budget of $69 million and employs hundreds of scientists and inspectors."
Earlier, state lawyers noted that there are more than 40 lawsuits by multiple parishes involving multiple defendants and thousands of alleged violations. "In order to do this administratively, it would effectively shut down the department," said Megan Terrell of the governor's coastal office. "They have six field biologists that would be required to do most of this work. In the meantime they still have to perform their regular duties."