How Louisiana Crippled a Vast Environmental Lawsuit

Historian John Barry is still fighting to restore state wetlands
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 5, 2014 6:00 PM CDT
How Louisiana Crippled a Vast Environmental Lawsuit
John Barry speaks at a news conference announcing the formation of the non-profit group, Restore Louisiana Now, Inc., in New Orleans, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013.   (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

A Louisiana historian wants oil and gas companies to help restore state wetlands that are vanishing by the day—but politicians are fighting him tooth and nail, the New York Times Magazine reports. John Barry, a gritty ex-weightlifter who writes US history books, watches in horror as Louisiana wetlands recede (and the Gulf of Mexico advances) by about a football field per hour. Dams and levees are partly to blame, as are tens of thousands of wells carved by oil and gas companies. The industry even admits to causing 36% of southeastern Louisiana's wetlands loss. A plan supported by scientists and industry to repair the land would cost about $50 billion, $20 billion of which can be paid by BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill lawsuits. Barry believes oil-and-gas should pay at least $18 billion of the rest—or 36% of the total.

But oil-and-gas wants taxpayers to foot that bill, so Barry fought back. In an ambitious move, the regional levee board of which Barry was a member filed the biggest environmental lawsuit in US history against the oil and gas companies that affected the wetlands. "The reality is that our case is overwhelming," says Barry, adding that the companies "violated the terms of their contract. They broke the law!" Most of the companies had, in fact, used permits that demanded any environmental damage be repaired. But the state legislature—which critics say is deeply influenced by oil-and-gas—argued that no laws had been broken, and passed a bill that crippled or perhaps killed the lawsuit before it reached a courtroom. Gov. Bobby Jindal then signed the bill into law. Barry has started a nonprofit to keep the suit alive, and tells the Times-Picayune that "it really comes down to is the most basic conservative American values. It’s keep your word, obey the law, and take responsibility for your actions." (More Louisiana stories.)

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