High court won’t revive Louisiana coastal wetlands lawsuit

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to revive a Louisiana flood protection board’s lawsuit seeking to make oil, gas and pipeline companies pay for decades of damage to coastal wetlands.

The suit drew fierce opposition from the energy industry and many in state government when it was filed in 2013 by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. The suit said the industry’s dredging of canals in coastal drilling areas contributed to loss of wetlands that form a hurricane buffer for New Orleans, meaning more work and expense for the board in protecting and maintaining levees.

A federal district judge’s 2015 ruling held that federal and state law provided no avenue by which the board could bring the suit. A federal appeals court in New Orleans agreed, leading to the board’s request for Supreme Court Review. The request was denied without comment, except to note, without explanation, that Justice Samuel Alito, took no part in the matter.

While the denial brings an end to the flood board’s suit, some coastal parishes are pursuing similar lawsuits in state courts on different legal grounds.

The flood board had argued that damage to the coast done by decades of drilling and canal dredging by energy companies contributed to the loss of coastal wetlands. The wetlands form a hurricane buffer for New Orleans and the authority argued their loss meant more work and expense in protecting and maintaining levees.

When the lawsuit was filed in 2013, environmentalists hailed it as an effort to hold the industry accountable.

Then-Gov. Bobby Jindal joined industry leaders in calling it a boon for trial lawyers that would damage an industry that’s among south Louisiana’s major employers.

Jindal, a Republican, mounted a partially successful effort to remove supporters of the lawsuit from the flood protection board as their terms ended and replace them with industry supporters.

“From the outset of the case, I personally believed that the Flood Protection Authority was not the proper party to bring such a suit,” Joe Hassinger, a Jindal appointee and now the president of the flood board, said in a statement. “Nonetheless, we allowed the case to proceed through the legal system, as we were obligated to do by contract. The Flood Protection Authority has had its day in court.”

Jindal’s successor, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, was traveling to Puerto Rico on Monday to discuss the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria and was not available for comment. Donald Price, special counsel for the Department of Natural Resources in the Edwards administration, said Monday’s decision was not surprising. “They apparently felt this didn’t raise any significant federal issue,” he said.

Edwards has urged energy companies to work toward a settlement in the parish cases. Industry leaders have resisted, saying the suits are meritless.

Price said the pending lawsuits were filed by Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Jefferson, St. John the Baptist, Vermilion and Cameron parishes.