Appeals court rules in favor of Terrebonne Parish government in coastal lawsuit

Appeals court rules in favor of Terrebonne Parish government in coastal lawsuit


By Dan Copp | The Courier

An appeals court has ruled in favor of Terrebonne Parish government in its lawsuit against District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. in connection with a state agency’s investigation of possible environmental damage caused by oil companies.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, Attorney General Jeff Landry and several other parishes are engaged in lawsuits against energy companies that blame drilling for years of coastal erosion and wetland loss in Louisiana.

Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Secretary Thomas Harris appointed Waitz as his “special designee” to investigate possible environmental law violations by oil and gas companies.

However, Terrebonne Parish President Gordy Dove said the district attorney does not speak for the parish. Dove argued that only the parish president and council have authority over civil matters in Terrebonne.

Terrebonne government filed a lawsuit in 2019 in state District Court in Houma that names Waitz and Harris as defendants.

The suit contends Waitz is “not an appropriate” appointee to act on behalf of the Department of Natural Resources and that the state attorney general is mandated by law to represent Louisiana in civil matters.

The defendants argued Waitz’s appointment did not usurp any authority from Terrebonne Parish government. The defendants also claimed parish government could not interfere with Waitz’s appointment because it is authorized by state law.

Following a hearing Nov. 18, 2020, District Judge Randy Bethancourt of Houma ruled in favor of the defendants and dismissed the parish’s lawsuit.

The parish then took the case to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association and the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association also filed briefs in support of Terrebonne Parish government’s appeal.

The appeals court said in its ruling Wednesday that Terrebonne government made valid arguments to request the court to interpret the law to determine who is authorized to investigate and civilly enforce violations of state environmental laws.

Dove praised the appeals court’s unanimous ruling.

“It’s a huge win for the people and businesses of Terrebonne Parish,” he said Wednesday. “No matter what you do in Terrebonne, our economy is oil- and gas-related. (Parish Attorney) Jules Hebert and his team did a wonderful job in oral arguments with the 1st Circuit. Their opinion hit a lot of the issues that we brought up. Our contention from day one was that it is up to Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government to hire lawyers for any civil matters in Terrebonne Parish.”

Terrebonne and Lafourche have opted not to join the coastal lawsuits, arguing that suing oil and gas companies could have a negative impact on the community’s main employer.

Dove and Lafourche Parish President Archie Chaisson said they would rather work with oil and gas companies that they say are voluntarily restoring coastal wetlands and marshes. Both parish presidents have attributed Louisiana’s coastal damage to levees along the Mississippi River to prevent flooding.

“From day one I have been reviewing coastal-use permits that were issued in Terrebonne Parish,” Dove said. “We’re looking into that issue. We already had a seat at the table. We’re not just running out there suing oil companies because they’ve got deep pockets. We’ve done our due diligence. There were 8,500 permits issued and we’ve gone over about 2,000 of them and have found no substantial violations by the oil companies.”

Thibodaux attorney Christopher H. Riviere, who represents the defendants along with William Abel, said the 1st Circuit’s ruling is based on merely a procedural issue.

“The merits of the case have not yet been determined,” he said. “They didn’t comment on who is right or wrong. This is far from over.”

The case now heads back to district court in Houma. A new trial date has not been set.