That was early June, and DNR still hasn't formulated regulations to administer the new process. A special committee charged with drafting the rules has only met twice, and an operating plan ' complete with budget and staff ' is just starting to come together.
The fight involves contaminated oil fields around Louisiana referred to as "legacies," because for generations some oil companies ' not necessarily the current operators ' created them and polluted the land around them. Now, years later, they still haven't been cleaned up, and that makes for a lot of environmental litigation.
The lawsuits were once considered the new tobacco or asbestos litigation. A 2003 decision, Corbello v. Iowa Production, resulted in a $33 million property damage award, but a discouraging trend emerged. Landowners were not always required to use the money to clean up their properties. Business interests claimed juries were creating a hostile business climate by sticking oil companies with huge judgments, and the environmental messes often created by other operators weren't even being cleaned up.
Lawmakers sought a middle ground earlier this year, adopting a compromise of sorts in the regular session. It was the most contentious issue they addressed, pitting oil companies against trial lawyers and landowners.
Each team had a bevy of lobbyists running back and forth during the debates; amendments were hammered out in huddled sessions while lawmakers patiently waited. Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, was a mastermind behind one of the teams, helping to push the final policy change.
Briggs initially thought it would take "about four months" for the state to have the revised process in place but now realizes it's going to take longer. "I didn't think it was so detailed and complicated that we wouldn't finish it quickly, but quickly for government sometimes means several months," Briggs says. "It was not a perfect piece of legislation, and it's going to take some time until it gets into the courts to see how good or bad it is."
The parties owning or representing contaminated property wanted Louisiana's 231 district courts to oversee the new cleanup process, while oil interests wanted DNR in control. Big Oil won out ' for the most part.
Landowners can still sue oil companies over legacy sites, and the courts still decide who's at fault, but now the state is largely responsible for drafting cleanup plans. Both sides can present their recommendations to the state, but DNR officials have final say over what goes back to the judge for consideration. The trial court would then hold damage awards and make sure cleanups occur.
The legislation also gave DNR's Office of Conservation authority to promulgate the rules and regulations for administering the process, which hasn't formally happened yet, according to Jim Welsh, DNR's conservation commissioner. He says a special committee of representatives from all interested parties first met in July and asked DNR to draft a proposed set of rules.
That draft was distributed at a second meeting Oct. 10. Once a compromise is hammered out, a legislative committee will have final approval following a public hearing. Welsh hopes the entire process is ready by the end of the year.
There are 103 active legacy cases in the courts, but none of them have fallen under the new process yet. Welsh hopes the final product will be in place by the time a case comes across his desk, but there's the possibility his office will have to administer the program with a set of rules that haven't yet had public input or lawmaker approval.
"We would follow the law that was passed the best way we could," says Welsh, who has the authority to promulgate temporary emergency rules. "We would just make management decisions." Until any of this happens, however, the process is largely untested.
Welsh also is waiting on a legislative committee to approve $250,000 for the program, which represents a one-year administrative budget. Civil service has endorsed the hiring of four new staffers for the program, but no one has been hired. Despite all the loose ends, Welsh is confident the new process will be effective.
Opponents aren't so sure. They fear DNR will be overly friendly to the oil industry, a sector it regulates. Sen. Butch Gautreaux of Morgan City pushed an alternative to the legacy bill this year ' one geared more toward environmentalists and landowners ' and says the problems under the old system haven't been addressed under the new act. He suggests the perceived delay in rule-making is evidence of that. "I'm really surprised they have taken this long, and I think they're dragging their feet on it," he says. "I thought this was a real priority, but I guess it really isn't."
Despite lingering administrative questions, Don Carmouche, whose Gonzales law firm is represented on the rules-making committee, says there hasn't been a big rush to settle cases to avoid the new process; in fact, DNR's attorney says no legacy suit has been settled since the law was enacted this summer.
Oddly enough, the man who frequently represents landowners in legacy suits is thus far supportive of the process. "Right now it's going as well as we could have expected," Carmouche says, "and I really believe people in the commissioner's office are doing the best they can."
Hopefully he’ll be better prepared today than he was in that Feb. 20 deposition.
They came by the hundreds, arriving from all regions of the state to gather on the steps of our Capitol in protest of the Legislature’s long tradition of giving industry the go-ahead to abuse our air, our water and our coastline, all in the name of good economics.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent rhetoric against President Barack Obama has failed to boost his standing among the conservative base.
Louisiana's annual legislative session begins.
The state has hired marksmen to shoot feral hogs from helicopters at two wildlife management areas in south Louisiana.
The former star of Saturday Night Live throws in his 2 cents on the Big Oil lawsuit.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Monday, March 10, 2014:
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has stalled action on a $3.5 billion annual school funding formula due to state lawmakers by March 15.
The New Orleans Saints have yet to make it official as of this writing, but popular wide receiver Lance Moore has reportedly been cut by the team to free up salary-cap space on the roster.
While two medical marijuana bills are slated for the upcoming legislative session, what some Louisianans might not know is that the plant was approved for therapeutic use by state lawmakers in 1991.
The agenda is shaping up to be lighter than in previous years. But Jindal is term-limited, with fewer than two years remaining in office, and he saw his last big initiative — a proposed rewrite of Louisiana tax law — collapse without getting a vote in 2013.
Sharper has been held without bail because of an arrest warrant issued by Louisiana authorities accusing him and another man of raping two women.
Two Lafayette men have been revealed by police as the infamous duo behind a caper that shook our fair city to its core.
The Lafayette Parish School Board has received a second letter of demand related to last year’s insurance debacle, this time from Key Benefit Administrators claiming it’s owed $93,000 from the school system.
The Louisiana coastline is vanishing faster than mappers can keep track.
A bill that would have overridden local ordinances prohibiting public and private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay and transgender people has been pulled within less than a week of being filed.
The panel that selects nominees for a controversial New Orleans area flood control board — a board that is suing more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies — is set to discuss legislation affecting its independence.
State prison officials cannot keep secret the seller and manufacturer of the two drugs purchased for executions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
State lawmakers will not appeal a judge's ruling that it was improper to use $3.7 million from a probation and parole officers' retirement fund to balance the state's operating budget.
Conservatives have been losing their minds over this satirical bit on the Colbert Report.
The Lafayette Parish School Board leaves a lot to be desired, but is scrapping the election process in favor of an appointed board the answer?
The House approved legislation Tuesday night to roll back a recently enacted overhaul of the federal flood insurance program, after homeowners in flood-prone areas complained about sharp premium increases.
The NFL has formally designated New Orleans' Jimmy Graham as a tight end for the purposes of his franchise tag value, which is now set at $7.05 million next season unless Graham and the Saints subsequently agree on a long-term deal.
A federal appeals panel ruled Monday that businesses don't have to prove that they were directly harmed by BP's 2010 Gulf Of Mexico oil spill to collect settlement payments.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has closed Interstate 10 from I-49 in Lafayette to Seigen Lane in Baton Rouge.