Agency: More staff needed for legacy lawsuits

04 24, 2012 by The Advocate

The state would have to hire more staff if, as oil companies propose, a state agency takes an earlier role in legacy lawsuits, officials with the agency that most of the bills would charge with assuming the larger task said Monday.

Commissioner of Conservation Jim Welsh testified before the state Senate Natural Resources Committee that the five full-time employees currently tasked to be involved in the cleanup of land allegedly dirtied by oil drilling operations over the years could handle about one case per month.

Welsh said Monday that for the division within his Office of Conservation to pick up the pace the number of employees would have to increase or the additional work would have to be contracted out to private companies. “It would have to be funded,” Welsh said.

The division that does legacy lawsuit work has an annual budget of about $444,000, he said. The Office of Conservation receives most of its funds from regulatory fees put on the oil and gas industry, Welsh said.

J. Blake Canfield, senior attorney with the Office of Conservation, said three of the five staffers have scientific expertise, the fourth manages the division and the fifth is an attorney who oversees the hearings.

Under current law, commonly called Act 312, the DNR Office of Conservation becomes involved when a judge orders the cleanup of a site, Canfield said. The office has only become asked by a court to intervene in three cases, he said. Another 65 cases were to review the cleanup plans put together as part of a settlement of the lawsuit, he said.

Canfield said each case that goes to a hearing would need three staffers.

Legislation favored by oil companies proposed giving the DNR Office of Conservation a lead role in hopes of sidetracking lawsuits by the owners of the land. The landowners oppose legislation that creates a step in which a state agency would first review and submit a cleanup plan before a lawsuit could be continued in state district court.

The Conservation Office has received notice of about 280 legacy lawsuits, Canfield said.

State Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales and a member of the committee, asked how many staffers would be necessary, if 25 percent of that number — about 70 cases — was referred at one time to the Office of Conservation.

“It is very difficult for us to quantify that exact number,” said Gary Snellgrove, director of Conservation Office’s Environmental Division. “I believe we can process, all things considered, taking the average, probably one case or hold one of these Act 312 hearings, say, per month with the current staff that we have.”