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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

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Local officials uncertain how coastal settlement may work out

Local officials uncertain how coastal settlement may work out

Despite their strong opposition to lawsuits against oil and gas companies for coastal damage, Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes could be in line to receive money from the first settlement.

The Times-Picayune/ broke the news late last week that Freeport-McMoRan has agreed to settle a lawsuit and pay $100 million to avoid legal battles.

A dozen coastal parishes are expected to divide the money, if the agreement goes through.

The exact settlement hasn’t been publicly released, but the company is expected to pay $23.5 million in cash and $76.5 million through selling environmental credits. Of the total, $15 million of the cash settlement would be paid upfront, followed $4.25 million in 2023 and 2024. The money would go into a dedicated account for coastal restoration that has to be set up by the state Legislature.

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.

The two parish councils passed resolutions in 2015 and 2016 stating they would not join the state’s lawsuits. Parish Presidents Gordy Dove and Jimmy Cantrelle publicly denounced the suits in letters to Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Despite their opposition, this settlement agreement opens the parishes up to receive part of the payout, although it’s not yet clear how much.

All 12 parishes involved and the state must agree to the deal and on how to divide the money. There’s still some question over who in parish or state government will approve the agreement on behalf of the parishes.

“We all have to agree with it. I don’t think Vermilion should get hardly anything; they don’t hardly have any problems, not like Terrebonne, Lafourche, Plaquemines and Jefferson,” Dove said.

Of the 12, the parishes are split into two groups: those that joined the lawsuits filed against the companies and those that didn’t but have prepared a damage model so they could receive a portion of the settlement money.

Those that have filed suits are St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, Vermilion and Cameron. Those that have prepared damage models are Lafourche, Terrebonne, St. Mary, St. Martin and Iberia.

Because Terrebonne and Lafourche didn’t file lawsuits, they weren’t involved in negotiating the settlement.

Dove said he doesn’t expect the deal to go through, calling it a political “stunt” and “joke” pulled just weeks before the state’s primary election.

Dove himself is running for re-election to a second four-year term.

“There will be more economic loss than the pennies that you’re getting for what they’re trying to propose here,” he said.

Meanwhile, Terrebonne Parish government and the District Attorney’s Office are in a legal battle over District Attorney Joe Waitz’s appointment to create a damage model for the parish. In April, the parish filed a lawsuit against Waitz and the state over the appointment. That case is expected to go to court in the next few months.

That appointment however, is what’s giving Terrebonne a seat at the negotiating table for these settlement talks.

“The whole reason Joe got us involved was so Terrebonne would have a seat at the table,” said Berwick Duval, an attorney with Duval, Funderburk, Sundberry, Richard and Watkins hired to conduct a damage assessment for the parish.

Lafourche Parish is more uncertain how it will be affected by the settlement.

“If it’s $1, Lafourche benefits,” Cantrelle said Monday, but noted he hasn’t heard much about the deal.

Like Dove, Cantrelle said, “I was never really convinced that the oil companies were the only ones that caused the problems.”

The Block Law Firm in Thibodaux was contracted in 2016 to help Lafourche navigate these issues for the parish.

Jerald Block confirmed Tuesday his firm is still representing the parish and working to create a damage model but declined to comment further, citing attorney-client privilege.

The Lafourche District Attorney’s Office is not involved in the matter, a spokesman said.

Dove’s concerns extend to the role of private landowners; many in Terrebonne are oil companies. He said he is also concerned about the apparent low amount of the settlement versus what the state says damages are and how the initial $15 million payment will be spent.

“No one wants money for coastal restoration and hurricane protection as much as me, but there’s a smart way to do it,” he said. “But let’s be smart about it and not let these attorney firms from Baton Rouge ruin it. If there’s ever any money to get gotten, we’ll get it.”

Since the settlement was announced, Duval said his firm has focused on assessing Freeport’s impact in Terrebonne, which includes several open pits and unpermitted activities. The firm hopes to compare its damage models to those in other parishes.

Both parish administrations, meanwhile, are waiting for information.

“We will sit back, we will follow it, we will educate ourselves on it to know exactly what’s going on,” Dove said.

“We’ll look at it and see,” Cantrelle said.


-- Daily Comet Staff Writer Julia Arenstam can be reached at 448-7636 or Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaArenstam.