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Louisiana leaders unite to sue Big Oil

Published Aug. 5, 2016

ALLIANCE, La. — The oil industry has left a big footprint along the Gulf Coast, where a Delaware-sized stretch of Louisiana has disappeared. But blaming Big Oil for ecosystem abuse has been seen a career killer for politicians in a state where the industry employs up to 300,000 people and injects $73 billion into the economy.

Until now.

Following the lead of Gov. John Bel Edwards, Louisiana political orthodoxy is being turned upside-down as prominent leaders of both parties join lawsuits seeking billions of dollars for environmental improvement projects.

Down in the pancake-flat bayou, it's not easy to see what made so much of the coast sink into the Gulf of Mexico.

Even when you climb onto the levee, buzzing with dragonflies, that keeps the old delta farming community of Alliance from being swallowed, all that's visible is marshland, stretching toward a green horizon.

But land's end is much closer now, and what remains has been disrupted. Access canals carved by the oil industry run straight as arrows, rusting signs warn of underwater pipelines and abandoned drilling platforms sink into the muck. As the Alliance refinery billows with fumes, the surrounding pastures are slowly sinking.

"Our coast is in crisis," Edwards wrote in a letter to oil executives after their initial meeting in May, calling for an "amicable solution" to avoid years of litigation.

He was soon seconded by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose family of Louisiana Democrats long supported Big Oil. Landrieu accused former state leaders of allowing the industry to cripple "in a generation or two what Mother Nature built in 7,000 years," and said the damage has spread "through the marsh like an infection.

In July, Vermilion Parish, deep in Louisiana's "Oil Patch," became the fourth local government to file claims against Exxon, Shell, Chevron and dozens of other corporations. The agency overseeing flood protection for New Orleans also is suing. Republicans have joined in, from GOP-led parishes to Attorney General Jeff Landry.

At issue are oil fields like the one in Alliance, in Plaquemines Parish, where oil companies are accused of routinely abandoning open waste pits, carelessly dumping toxic brine and oil field waste onto the marsh and interrupting the delta's ebbs and flows by dredging thousands of miles of canals that weren't filled back in.

The oil industry blames the Army Corps of Engineers, whose levees deny the delta its natural deposits of silt and sand while channeling the Mississippi River out to sea.

"It's just such a vague attempt by the plaintiffs to throw a blanket over an entire industry and hold it singularly responsible for a problem that's got multiple causes," said Robert Meadows, a Chevron lawyer.

Scientists generally agree that between 30 and 40 percent of wetlands loss is attributable to drilling and its associated activities, said John Day, a Louisiana State University scientist and expert on the delta's problems.

"The factual basis is terribly strong: If I were a plaintiffs' counsel, I'd put on a five-day slide show narrated by geologists and hydrologists and wetlands scientists, and it would be devastating," said Oliver Houck, an environmental law professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.

What's gone is gone, but the politicians hope to keep hundreds of other square miles from disappearing. They're envisioning huge projects to divert sediment flows from the Mississippi River and build up marsh flats, barrier islands, ridges and swamp forests.

It would cost between $50 billion and $100 billion, and Louisiana doesn't expect to have more than $25 billion to spend.

Suing oil companies "is probably the only new potential source of revenue," said Mark Davis, who directs Tulane University's Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy.

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