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."
The Lafayette superintendent insists the budget is illegal and vows to fight on.
"I am not a scientist," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has said numerous times, a response that other members of his party have parroted.
Republicans are running strong races against endangered Democratic incumbents in states such as North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska. Republicans are also looking to replace retiring Democrats in Iowa and West Virginia with a GOP lawmaker.
Republican congressman Vance McAllister is trying to make up to Louisiana voters for getting too close to a married former employee.
You may not like all of “it,” but U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, unlike many of her colleagues, isn't sitting around twiddling her thumbs in Congress.
Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro says he "can't wait" to play against Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The heat keeps rising for Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal as a new slate of corruption allegations surfaced this week.
If opposing defenses sell out to stop the Packers' passing game, they risk being gashed by powerful running back Eddie Lacy, a New Orleans-area native.
At the horn the officiating crew trotted to the tunnel and left security personnel to clean up after them.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
Sign "ninjas" cleaning up clutter; NYC doctor positive for Ebola; Ferguson grand jury decision nears; and more national and international news for Friday, October 24, 2014.
We can safely assume incumbent Chief K.P. Gibson isn’t too worried about this challenger.
Nationally, Republicans must gain six seats to win Senate control. The most competitive races, many in states where Obama lost in 2012, remain too close to call.
The Baton Rouge Republican has repeatedly battled a perception within his own party that he perhaps wasn't the best choice to carry the GOP banner.
Even if Jimmy Graham's production dips while the star tight end recovers from a shoulder injury, it looks like Drew Brees won't have much trouble finding other targets.
A former campaign manager for Senate candidate Rob Maness is striking at the Republican contender's tea party support, saying Maness only sought to appeal to conservative organizations because he needed money for his campaign.
Ninety-two percent of public school teachers were rated either effective or highly effective in a report the state issued marking the second year of a new statewide evaluation process.
School board members Mark Babineaux, Hunter Beasley and Tehmi Chassion can vote to fire Cooper — because we all know that’s exactly what they’ll do.
District 2 school board candidate Simon Mahan is hoping to unseat first-term incumbent and former Carencro Mayor Tommy Angelle in the Nov. 4 election.
District Attorney Mike Harson is showing his desperation by falsely attributing quotes to his opponent and blocking journalists from his social media.
The governor is traveling the country laying the groundwork for a possible 2016 presidential campaign, but his approval ratings at home hover well below 50 percent.
State District Judge Bob Downing extended the order and delayed a planned Wednesday hearing about a permanent injunction while negotiations continue between Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and the waste disposal site operator.
New Louisiana higher education commissioner Joseph Rallo will be paid more than his predecessor.
Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris each had four rushing touchdowns, and Louisiana-Lafayette rolled to 419 yards on the ground in a 55-40 victory over Arkansas State on Tuesday night.
Bill and Hillary Clinton are the validators-in-chief for Democrats struggling through a bleak campaign season in states where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular.