'Legacy' lawsuits bills in House, Senate

04 24, 2012 by Shreveport Times

Legislation dealing with lawsuits over old oil and gas exploration and pollution is either aimed at speeding up the process of getting sites cleaned up or at giving producers a way to get around current law, depending on which side of the dispute you ask.

The oil and gas industry, which was instrumental in crafting the law that now is on the books, is pushing a process that would have courts refer to the Department of Natural Resources cases that involve companies that admit negligence so a remediation plan can be developed.

Representatives of landowners say the current law approved six years ago, which was authored by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, and backed by industry, after several years of court challenges is proving to be effective and doesn't need to be changed. It's actually only been in place three years, they said.

At issue are disposal pits that contain massive amount of salt and some hazardous materials, mercury in the soil from gauges that measured flow and abandoned equipment like storage tanks, old pumps and rusty pipes that run across the property of landowners who want it cleaned up.

HB618 by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, is headed to the House floor for debate Wednesday while SB528 by Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, and SB731 by Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, are to be heard in Senate Natural Resources possibly next week.

Because Abramson handles legacy lawsuits, opponents of his bill have filed a complaint with the state Ethics Board alleging that his handling the bill violates the state ethics law.

At a Monday hearing to familiarize senators with the situation, Louisiana Oil and Gas Association Vice President Gifford Briggs said the industry has been working on the new legislation for nine months.

He said it has three primary goals: getting companies to admit responsibility for violating regulations for waste disposal and site cleanups, getting "an open, fair and transparent hearing" and to have DNR develop a cleanup plan that a court can approve.

"The bill doesn't establish primary jurisdiction in the Department of Natural Resources," Briggs said, because a court would decide whether the plan is adequate.

Opponents of the proposals say that's being done under the current law when companies admit wrongdoing.

Jimmy Faircloth, representing Roy O. Martin companies, Weyerhauser and the Louisiana Landowners Association, said he hopes to figure out "what's the real itch that we can scratch."

He said there's a way to reach a compromise that "protects public health and gives independent producers the protection they deserve" if the proponents want to cooperate.

Scott Sinclair, president of Tensas Delta Exploration Co. of Shreveport, said legacy lawsuits have crippled his company's operations. He said his company is being sued over sites that it leased out to other producers and as of last week, a fifth lawsuit was filed.

One of the lawsuits sought $133 million, but an assessment of the cleanup shows the cost would be $500,000, he said, and lawsuits have stopped exploration on 126,000 acres of property the company owns in Catahoula and Tensas parishes.

Sherwood Gagliano, an environmental scientist who has been involved in several lawsuits, showed the committee slides of large areas of Cameron and Calcasieu parishes that are barren because of salt that escaped from disposal pits.

He called it "a salt desert."

Some sites have been cleaned up using a DNR standard that calls for digging out waste and filling the hole with usable soil. The standard calls for plant life to survive.

Allain said he knows of sites that have been cleaned up to DNR standards where nothing will grow.