‘Big Oil’ Suit Looms Over Louisiana Flood Board Nominations

By KEVIN McGILL | September 16, 2013

Gov. Bobby Jindal will not reappoint two key members of a southeast Louisiana flood control board because the panel decided to file a lawsuit against the oil and gas industry, the governor’s coastal protection chief said Friday.

Garret Graves made the statement after a meeting of an independent panel assembled to nominate members of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. Jindal and Graves have both been critical of the board’s decision to file the lawsuit.

In remarks to the nominating panel, Graves repeated his contention that the lawsuit has hampered state cooperative coastal protection projects with the industry.

“I would just urge you to help give us the functional process to where we can continue working together, all pushing in the same direction to get protection in place, to get restoration in place,” Graves said.

Later, in response to email queries, Graves explicitly said neither board president Tim Doody nor member John Barry would be nominated. Both men’s terms on the nine-member board expired June 30, but they have continued to serve legally, pending the selection of their replacements.

“It’s not surprising, but it is disappointing,” said Doody. An attorney, he has not voted for the suits. He has recused himself just in case members of the law firm for which he works were to become involved with one of the defendant companies. But he has not opposed the lawsuit.

Barry said Graves was injecting politics into what is supposed to be a non-political process. “You’re an independent, nonpolitical board as long as you do what the politicians order you to do,” he said.

The law says the governor “shall” appoint members for the flood authority from nominees selected by the panel, which is made up of representatives of good government groups, professional societies and academics. However, even if Doody and Barry are re-nominated by the panel, the panel also is required to have two nominees for each of their positions, meaning Jindal would have other options.

The complicated and tight legal timeline for making the nomination may also have given Jindal more leeway. Legal notices announcing the vacancies were published late – the last on Aug. 28. Committee members said Friday it appears that the earliest they will be able to assemble a list of nominees appears to be early October – more than 90 days after the vacancies.

Jindal is required to make appointments if the panel fails to make nominations within 90 days of the vacancies. Graves said the administration believes that means Jindal could make his own appointment, although he stressed Friday that the panel’s nominees would be considered.

Supporters of the lawsuit said the nominating committee should let qualifications, not the disagreement over the lawsuit, guide its decision. Sandy Rosenthal, founder of the advocacy group Levees.Org, said the nominating panel should act “exactly as they would have a year ago, before anyone ever heard of the coastal erosion lawsuit. In other words, impartially.”

The suit alleges that the oil and gas industry has cost Louisiana hundreds of thousands of acres of coastal land that serve as a natural buffer against flooding from hurricanes. Corrosive saltwater from a network of oil and gas access and pipeline canals has killed vegetation and swept away vast amounts of soil, the suit claims.

Graves acknowledges that oil and gas activities have contributed to coastal wetlands loss. However, he says that is only part of the problem, noting the role of levee systems that have kept sediment-rich Mississippi River water from flowing into wetlands.

Initially filed in state court in New Orleans, the industry defendants have had it transferred to federal court. An Oct. 2 hearing is set on the flood authority’s move to have it placed back in state court.

One other board member whose term has expired, meteorologist Dave Barnes, is not seeking re-appointment.

The nomination committee’s task is complicated further by the exacting residential and professional qualifications for flood authority members. At least two applicants for positions on the SLFPA East board appeared not to meet qualifications. Panel member Robert Travis Scott, representing the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said he is worried that the panel will have too few qualified candidates.

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