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Fight Over 'Big Oil" Bill Heats Up

Supporters of a south Louisiana flood control board's lawsuit against scores of oil and gas companies over erosion of coastal wetlands announced plans to fight legislation they say could undermine not only the lawsuit, but the political independence of the board.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Supporters of a south Louisiana flood control board's lawsuit against scores of oil and gas companies over erosion of coastal wetlands announced plans Thursday to fight legislation they say could undermine not only the lawsuit, but the political independence of the board.

Sen. Robert Adley's bill, filed for this year's legislative session, would give Gov. Bobby Jindal power to reject an independent committee's nominations for membership on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.

Jindal opposes the lawsuit filed last year against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies by the SLFPA-E. The suit seeks to hold the industry accountable for damage done by dredging for pipelines and canals and other activity believed to have contributed to erosion of coastal wetlands. The fragile wetlands serve as a natural buffer against hurricane storm surge.

The advocacy group Levees.Org, a group that organized to call attention to levee failures during Hurricane Katrina, announced the plans at a news conference Thursday along with members of the environmental organizations Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network and Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

The backdrop for the news conference was a block of weedy empty lots and abandoned crumbling houses sitting near the site where the London Avenue canal flood wall gave way when Katrina hit — one of several breaches that led to catastrophic flooding in the 2005 storm. The site is in the Gentilly neighborhood, a working-class area of modest homes that is recovering unevenly from the disaster.

Signs with a portrait of Adley and the words "The Face of Big Oil" were stuck in the ground around the participants, who said Adley's bill would erode the political independence of regional flood boards established in a post-Katrina reform effort.

"We certainly shouldn't let a man who is in no danger of flooding be the architect of pulling apart our levee board," Anne Rolfes, of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said referring to the Republican lawmaker from the northwest Louisiana city of Benton.

Adley and Jindal have been harsh critics of the lawsuit, saying it hurts an industry that has done much for the state and undermines a well-coordinated effort to protect and restore the coast. Adley said in a telephone interview that he filed the bill for the Jindal administration and that he plans more bills aimed at the nine-member board and the lawsuit.

"My advice to the governor was that I'd fire them all for cause," Adley said.

He repeated his contention that the board had no authority to file the lawsuit, did not give proper public notice about its plans for the suit and had no authority to hire private lawyers on contingency fees.

Jindal already has replaced three members of the board whose terms have expired with nominees who share his opposition to the lawsuit. And he is working to replace chairman Tim Doody, who had sought re-appointment, and who was re-nominated for the panel, after his last term expired. Jindal refused to re-appoint him and he continues to serve in the interim.

Adley's bill requires the nominating board to submit three nominees for each vacancy — up from the one or, in some cases, two required under current law. And, while current law requires the governor to make an appointment from among the nominees submitted by the board, the bill would allow the governor to reject the nominees. The nominating board would be required to submit new names and, if they fail to do so, the governor could choose the new board member.

Among the complaints from the bill's critics: Giving the governor the power to reject qualified nominees diminishes the flood board's political independence, and requiring more nominees makes it more difficult for the nominating panel to find candidates who meet the law's strict qualifications and are willing to serve.

Board members serve without pay and must meet strict financial disclosure requirements, further complicating the nominating panel's job, said Sandy Rosenthal, founder of Levees.Org.

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