US judge: don't expect ruling in flood board suit over coastal damage before arguments Dec. 10

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NEW ORLEANS — Lawyers for dozens of oil, gas and pipeline companies asked a federal judge Wednesday to toss out a Louisiana flood board's lawsuit against them over damage drilling and dredging has done to Louisiana's fragile coast.

U.S. District Judge Nanette Jolivette Brown heard more than two hours of arguments on multiple issues, including the energy companies' contention that the lawsuit seeks relief from the court that should be left to regulatory agencies; and that a new state law that the industry pushed through the Legislature during the summer effectively kills the lawsuit retroactively.

Brown did not say when she would rule but told attorneys she did not expect to have a formal written ruling before Dec. 10, when still more arguments on the case are scheduled.

The lawsuit was filed last year by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, created after Hurricane Katrina to oversee levee boards in the New Orleans area. The suit contends that coastal drilling and dredging have contributed to the loss of coastal wetlands that protect New Orleans from hurricanes.

Arguing for energy companies, Chevron attorney Robert Meadows cited the U.S. Rivers and Harbors Act and the Clean Water Act as he argued that federal law does not allow the Louisiana flood board to pursue the lawsuit.

The flood board's attorney, Jim Swanson, countered, "There's not a single case in the history of the world that says the Clean Water Act or the Rivers and Harbors Act pre-empts state law claims."

Also at issue is a law pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Bobby Jindal and other industry allies and lawsuit opponents. Flood board attorneys say the law applied to local governments and state agencies — and that the flood board is neither. Energy attorneys argued that the law clearly applies to the flood board and that, regardless of the measure's exact language, the Legislature's clear intent to kill the lawsuit should prevail.

Brown questioned lawyers on both sides closely and indicated she will take her time with a ruling. Meanwhile, the new state law remains an issue in state court. A Baton Rouge judge has ruled that it does not apply to the SLFPA-E and that it violated the state constitution in several ways. Among them, Judge Janice Clark wrote, it violated the separation of powers by seeking to address an earlier court decision allowing the suit to go on; and that the constitution does not allow the state to take away the board's power to go to court over coastal restoration issues.

Opponents of the lawsuit have promised an appeal of Clark's rulings.

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