Louisiana board sues oil companies over coastal damage

A state regulatory board seeks restitution for damages to wetlands seen as a natural barrier to hurricanes

A barge with oil booms wait to be deployed to the wetlands on the Lousiana Coast on April 30, 2010 in Venice, Louisiana.

Louisiana flood protection officials filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to hold top energy companies responsible for the erosion of hundreds of acres along coastal lands that serve as a natural buffer against flooding from hurricanes.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East's (SLFPA-E) board of commissioners filed the lawsuit in New Orleans seeking financial compensation from roughly 100 defendants, including Exxon Mobil and BP. The claim accusess oil companies of increasing the risk of hurricanes, storm surgees and flooding in the region because of their work on wells and pipelines in state's wetlands.

The board, which accuses the companies of negligence and public nuisance, said that a network of pipeline canals have killed vegetation, swept away mountains of soil and allowed an unhealthy amount of saltwater into a freshwater ecosystem.

"The increasing intrusion of saltwater stresses the vegetation that holds wetlands together, weakening – and ultimately killing – that vegetation," SLFPA-E said in a press release. "Thus weakened, the remaining soil is washed away even by minor storms."

Wetlands are considered a crucial buffer against hurricanes, because they keep floodwaters from storm surge at bay, a factor that increases the severity of the environmental damage alleged by the state board.

SLFPA-E, which operates a system of levees, floodgates, seawalls and jetties that protect about a million people and property in the greater New Orleans region, wants the companies named in the suit to restore the coastal land areas, including refilling canals and revegetating canals that have been dredged.  

"The industry has taken about $470 billion of the state's natural resources during the past 20 years, and we ask that it pick up its share of the increased costs of flood protections required to offset the loss of protective coastal wetlands," SLFPA-E Vice President John Barry said in a statement.  

The board says it will have to bear many of the costs associated with the need for increased flood protection, adding that if nothing is done about the problem "flood damage will increase steadily and steeply in years to come."

Louisiana is well acquainted with environmental consequences stemming from energy exploration.

In 2010, the blowout of an oil well owned by BP caused an explosion that killed 11 workers and led to millions of gallons of oil being spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. After that incident, the company agreed to create a $20 billion compensation fund.

BP said it had "no comment" on the latest litigation when contacted by Al Jazeera America. Exxon Mobil Corp also declined comment on the pending litigation as did Apache Corporation, another company named in the court filing.

"We haven’t seen the lawsuit, so we can't comment on it but it’s important to remember that Apache is very involved in preserving and protecting Louisiana marshland," a spokesman for Apache Corporation told Al Jazeera America.

Meanwhile, a shallow-water drilling rig in the gulf caught fire late Tuesday night after natural gas flowing from a ruptured well ignited, Reuters reported. Fourty-four people were safely evacuated from the rig, which is owned by Hercules Offshore.

Al Jazeera and wire services

Philip J. Victor contributed to this report

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