South Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish Council voted 5 to1 on November 12 to kill the lawsuits it had previously filed for damages done by oil and gas companies to the coast resulting in land loss. The 21 suits cited 68 companies that did not adhere to work permits, or didn’t have them in the first place.
The crowd that filled the council meeting cheered when the council voted to withdraw from the lawsuits, though pulling out of the litigation could cost the parish millions, potentially billions of dollars the parish stands to win.
Council Meeting in Pointe à la Hache where dozens present for the vote were wearing Chevron emblems. ©2015 Julie Dermansky
Temporary Magnolia Center Building in Pointe à la Hache where the council meeting was held. ©2015 Julie Dermansky
Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association and constable of Plaquemines Parrish's 3rd Ward, described the council’s move as a dereliction of duty. “Industry must be held accountable for the laws it broke, and it is the council’s job to take the lead,” he told DeSmog following the meeting.
Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association. ©2015 Julie Dermansky
Philip Cossich and Victor Marcello, two of the lawyers hired by the council to initiate the litigation, warned that pulling out of the lawsuits could cost the parish a substantial amount of money. The losses would be what the attorneys stand to win for damage to the parish, not from attorneys' fees. As they promised when taking the case, the attorneys would not collect any money from the parish, whether they win, lose, or are fired, Cossich told DeSmog. They would only collect fees from the defendants if the parish won.
Cossich and Marcello made emotional pleas to the council to meet with its team of attorneys in executive session before voting on the motion. “You don't stop medical treatment for a serious condition without consulting your doctor,” Cossich told the council.
The pressure to quash lawsuits that hold the oil and gas industry responsible for coastal erosion is not new. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal played a role in undermining a similar case against oil and gas companies brought by the New Orleans levee board that was dismissed last year.
But as the election for governor approaches and the Democratic candidate, John Bell Edwards, is polling ahead of Republican David Vitter, the push against the Plaquemines Parrish lawsuits has increased. Edwards is seen as a threat by many in the oil and gas industry.
A new resolution to withdraw the lawsuits was added to the council’s agenda a few weeks before the governor’s election on November 21. After the resolution was put on the agenda, lawn signs against the suit, produced by Madere & Sons Towing, a tugboat company that services the oil and gas industry, popped up all over the parish, and glossy mailers asking “Whose voice, ours or the trial lawyers?” filled residents’ mailboxes.
Nick Kohnke, an employee at Madere & Sons Towing, spoke out in favor of dropping the lawsuits at the council meeting. Those against the litigation expressed fear that the lawsuit would cost the parish jobs claiming businesses are already pulling out of the area. Kohnke and others at the meeting accused the attorneys of trying to bully the council members into continuing the suits.
Kindra Arnesen. ©2015 Julie Dermansky
Kindra Arnesen, a parish resident known for being an outspoken critic of BP following the oil spill, disagrees on both counts. “High port taxes have caused some connected to industry to relocate, but job loss in general has to do with the price of oil dropping, not the lawsuits,” she told DeSmog. “Jobs in the industry have been cut nationwide, not just in Plaquemines Parish.”
She thought that the cheers following the vote were misplaced because anyone who lives or works in the parish knows it is in desperate need of funds to repair the coast, noting that businesses moving out of the area could easily be more concerned about the infrastructure than the lawsuits. With little being done to restore the coast, each new storm threatens to shut the parish down. Arnesen has had to rebuild after the last two and doesn’t think she is up to doing it again.
Aerial view of Plaquemines Parish. ©2015 Julie Dermansky - Flight made possible by SouthWings
The Louisiana coast land loss is approximately one football field every 38 minutes, according to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. The figures are based on numbers released by the United States Geological Survey.
And though Louisiana approved a coastal restoration plan in 2012, it is estimated to cost $50 billion over 50 years and, as yet, it is unclear where the funds will come from.
As for claims of bullying, it is people with ties to industry, not the lawyers, who are doing the bullying. People are afraid to speak out, Arnesen said. Some lost business, like former councilman Byron Marinovich, whose customers boycotted his restaurant for supporting the lawsuits.
“The lawsuits won’t go away,” Arnesen told the council, “even if the council drops them.” She worries that if the state takes over the litigation, the money collected will go elsewhere, and if that happens, “there will be no money to fix things in the Parish.”
It is possible another branch of the government could pick up the suits, Cossich confirmed to DeSmog. But he couldn’t comment on what might happen next since the Parish Council is still his client.
The lawyers reminded the council that it chose to take the lead in enforcing the laws governing companies operating in the parish. When industry's actions lead to adverse effects to the coast, the council took the reins from three other entities that could have pursued the offenders: the district attorney for the parish, the Department of Natural Resources under the governor’s office, and the state’s attorney general. If the parish chooses to pull out now, it could result in charges of malfeasance of duty.
Marcello also warned the council that if anyone who votes for ending the lawsuits met with representatives that are part of the litigation on the opposing side, and discussed the lawsuits but didn’t inform their attorneys beforehand, he/she might have violated state ethics rules.
Arnesen questioned whether the majority vote to drop the lawsuits would stand. The vote had five affirmative votes and since five are needed for a victory, if one is overturned the resolution would be void.
Two members that voted to quash the lawsuits could have conflicts of interest. Council member Nicole Smith Williams works for the gas industry and Irvin Juneau has ties to Madere & Sons Towing, one of the lawsuits' biggest opponents. If either member is found to have violated ethics codes by voting, their votes would be set aside.
Council Member Nicole Smith Williams. ©2015 Julie Dermansky
Council Member Jeff Edgecombe, one of two members who changed their positions to vote ‘Yes’ on pulling out of the lawsuits. ©2015 Julie Dermansky
Cossich was disappointed but not surprised by the vote’s outcome. “When you realize the pressures put on your clients, it is not difficult to understand,” he told Desmog the day after the meeting. “We will talk to the parish’s attorney about what steps we need to take to best protect the parish,” he said.
He could not comment more on what comes next, but he made it clear the lawsuits are not dead just yet.
At the start of 2015, Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA), warned that pointing fingers at the oil and gas industry is political suicide.
A plan of action posted on the LOGA website states: “Judges who blatantly rule against the industry, parish presidents who stand behind egregious lawsuits, and mayors who publicly support litigations to prevent oil and gas activity were elected at some point in time. These same officials can also be voted out of office.”
Not long after Briggs’ warning, Nicole Smith Williams won Byron Marinovich’s council seat on Plaquemines Parish 7th District.
Retired Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré, famous for heading military relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina and now the leader of the GreenARMY, a coalition of environmental groups, spoke in favor of the lawsuits at the meeting. Afterwards, he took to social media to say the council’s actions are another example of how the oil and gas industry has hijacked our democracy.
DeSmog reached out to all of the council members who voted against continuing the lawsuits to find out where the money to repair the coast should come from, if not from the companies that caused the damage.
None of them provided an answer.
Marcello summarized the situation with a football analogy when he addressed the council before the vote, “In the terms of coastal management, we are in the 4th quarter, there are two minutes left and if we don’t do something now it will never get done.”
Industrial facility in Southern Louisiana. ©2015 Julie Dermansky - Flight made possible by SouthWings
Video: Byron Encalade Speaking at Plaquemines Parish Council Meeting