Flood Authority Divided On Future Of Lawsuit Over Wetlands

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An embattled flood protection board is divided about whether to forge on with its high-stakes legal fight over wetlands damage by oil companies or drop its lawsuit.
         Last Friday, U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown dismissed the lawsuit by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. Her dismissal was a blow to those who believe oil companies must be held more financially responsible for damage to Louisiana's coast. The suit seeks damages — potentially in the billions of dollars — from scores of oil, gas and pipeline companies over erosion of the state's fragile coast.
         At a board meeting Thursday the commissioners were clearly divided about whether to appeal to the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The board did not vote Thursday on what action to take.
         "The likelihood of success is very low," said Joe Hassinger, the board's vice president and a New Orleans attorney. A vocal critic of the lawsuit, he warned that continuing the legal fight could cost the board millions of dollars. He was one of three commissioners appointed in 2013 by Gov. Bobby Jindal in a move to replace board members who backed the lawsuit.
         The board's president, Stephen Estopinal, called on the board to keep up the fight.
         "I would suggest that we not play the Roman fool and fall on our own sword before we have gone through the whole process," Estopinal, a civil engineer, said. "Hell, we started this, we might as well see it through to the end and let the chips fall where they may. We owe that to the people: See it through to the end."
         The board was set up after Hurricane Katrina's catastrophic flooding by the Louisiana Legislature to rid New Orleans of its old problem-plagued levee boards. The lawsuit has considerable support in New Orleans and other coastal communities. Similar suits have been filed by parish governments.
         The lawsuit, filed in state court in July 2013 and later moved to federal court, ruffled the oil industry. Jindal and state lawmakers passed a bill to kill the litigation.
         In her 49-page ruling, Brown ruled that the authority had no legal standing to bring the suit. Brown, an Obama appointee who came onto the bench with a background in energy and environmental law, also rejected the board's contention that the energy companies had a duty under federal and state laws to protect the flood board from the effects of coastal erosion.
         Gladstone N. Jones III, the lawyer the board hired to handle the suit, recommended filing an appeal. "We think that factually and legally she (Brown) had it wrong," Jones said.
         When Jones and his attorneys took on the lawsuit, they did so under a contract with a "poison pill" provision. Under the contract, they stand to make big money if they win, but nothing if they lose. Also, under the contract, the attorneys would have to be paid if the lawsuit were withdrawn.
         Jones said he planned to file an appeal soon unless instructed not to by the board.
         – by AP Reporter Cain Burdeau

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