Parish Council Rejects Role in Coast Lawsuit Settlement

St. Mary Now

The St. Mary Parish Council wants no part of the first proposed settlement in lawsuits against energy companies over damage their operations caused to the Louisiana coast.

The council on Wednesday refused to sign on to a $100 million settlement deal involving the state government, coastal parishes and companies affiliated with Freeport McMoRan.

Dozens of lawsuits allege that by digging canals and performing other work, oil and gas companies damaged coastal Louisiana and violated state and federal laws, even though the work was carried out under federal permits.

The Center Square reported in March that the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office negotiated the settlement with Freeport McMoRan Oil and Gas and affiliated companies. Under the deal, the companies would pay about $24 million into a fund for coastal restoration projects over 20 years.

Freeport McMoRan would receive environmental credits that could be used to pay off its remaining $76 million obligation.

But all 12 coastal parishes that would be parties to the settlement must enter memorandums of understanding with the state and the other parishes.

The Legislature must approve the settlement structure, and attempts to do that have failed twice. The Lafourche Parish Council has twice voted against entering a memorandum of understanding. Gov. John Bel Edwards stepped in to authorize the memorandum on Lafourche’s behalf.

At Wednesday’s meeting, 16th Judicial District Attorney Bo Duhé told the council that the settlement gives district attorneys the power to enter the memorandums on their own. But he went to the councils to ask them what he should do.

“At the end of the day, I’m looking to you for guidance …,” Duhé said. “You’re elected to represent the people and do the people’s work.”

Marc Ehrhardt, executive director of the pro-energy-industry Grow Louisiana Coalition, asked the council to vote down the resolution authorizing Duhé to negotiate the memorandum for St. Mary.

The coalition has said the industry, which it says employs 10,000 people across the Bayou region and has invested hundreds of millions, would be hurt by the lawsuits.

The settlement is “a bad idea for St. Mary Parish,” Ehrhardt said. “It’s a bad idea for Louisiana.”

Council members were clearly inclined toward the coalition’s position against the memorandum. But Councilmen Scott Ramsey of Bayou Vista and Patrick Hebert of Berwick objected to a coalition Facebook post that they said accused the parish government and Duhé of conducting a “backdoor meeting” on the issue.

Council Chair Dr. Kristi Prejeant Rink of Centerville acknowledged that representatives of the three parishes in the 16th Judicial District met with Duhé, but only to hear about their options.

“There was nothing backdoor about this,” Rink said.

Duhé said that he personally opposes the lawsuits. But “what do lawyers do?” he said. “They tell you the pros, they tell you the cons, and then ask what do you want to do.”

Ehrhardt said the Facebook post had been removed.

“I apologize,” he said. “We’ll do better.”

The council voted 10-0 against the resolution authorizing Duhé to negotiate the memorandum. The 11th member, Rink, abstained.