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“The Lawbreaking is Ongoing”: Louisiana Levee Board Sues BP, Exxon, Shell, Chevron for Coast Damage

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Beyond the well-known devastation caused by the BP oil spill in 2010, the oil and gas industry in Louisiana has also been blamed for destroying coastal wetlands that provide a vital barrier against flooding from storms like Hurricane Katrina. Speaking from the front lines of this issue in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, we hear from community organizer Jacques Morial, the son of the city’s first African-American mayor, Dutch Morial. We are also joined by John Barry, vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East, the levee board responsible for protecting most of greater New Orleans. Barry led the authority’s lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies for destruction of the coast. On Monday, following pressure from Gov. Bobby Jindal, who opposed the lawsuit, the board’s nominating committee decided not to renominate Barry to another term on the flood board. Barry is also an award-winning historian and author of several books, including “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Louisiana, broadcasting from New Orleans public television, WLAE. We’re not far from the Gulf Coast, site of the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history in April 2010. Eleven workers died when the Deepwater Horizon well exploded, and almost five million barrels of crude oil leaked into the ocean before the well was plugged after 51 days.

This week, BP, the company responsible for the spill, is back in court. On Monday, the second phase of the trial began with lawyers accusing the oil company of lying about how much oil was leaking during the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Part of the trial will determine exactly how much much oil spilled. Under the Clean Water Act, polluters face maximum fines of $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil. If the polluter is found to be grossly negligent, as the plaintiffs argue BP was, the fine can grow to $4,300 per barrel.

Beyond the well-known devastation caused by the BP oil spill, the oil and gas industry in Louisiana has also been blamed for destroying coastal wetlands that provide a vital barrier against flooding from storms like Hurricane Katrina. On Sunday, Democracy Now! headed to the front lines of this issue: the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The team met with community organizer Jacques Morial, the son of the city’s first African-American mayor, Dutch Morial, for whom the Morial Convention Center is named, where many people went for shelter after Hurricane Katrina. He’s also the brother of former Mayor Marc Morial, who’s now head of the Urban League. Jacques described the scene at the edge of the water to Democracy Now!’s Amy Littlefield.

This is Democracy Now!, as we are here in New Orleans, and we’re just about to play you this piece of community organizer Jacques Morial.

JACQUES MORIAL: My name is Jacques Morial. I’m a community servant here in New Orleans. And I’m glad that you’re here at the Bayou Bienvenue lookout. This place, more than any other place, amplifies how close the sea is to our communities and homes of so many people. Right now—right now this is open water. And when I was a kid, it was mostly dry land. It was a cypress forest. And it was a little boy’s paradise. You know, you could like run through back there. You could like chase boar or have boar chase you. But right now it’s open water. This is brackish water. This is mostly saltwater. And it is within 150-200 yards of people’s homes. This is the sea right here. Right here. This is the ocean right here. You know, if you taste this water, it’s not fresh, it’s salty. And this is where the flood wall, before it was reinforced with all of this—all this aggregate here, this is where it was overtopped. And just about 1,200 meters from here is where the barge crashed through the flood wall. And—

AMY LITTLEFIELD: During Katrina.

JACQUES MORIAL: During Katrina, yeah. And, you know, one of my dear friends, he’s a little bit older than me, but he’s in much better shape than me, but the water went from seven inches to seven feet in his home in three minutes, about six blocks from here. Thankfully, he swam to safety.

The primary cause of this particular area is probably the dredging of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which the business leaders decided in the late '50s, early ’60s, to dredge a shortcut between the Port of New Orleans here in New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. So, because the river meanders, it's about a hundred miles from the foot of Canal Street to the Gulf of Mexico. This was a shortcut, about 60 miles. And it never achieved any commercial success. But it did allow the wet—allow the saltwater to intrude into this area, destroy our first line of defense, and put us at great risk for storm surge flooding and, I’m certain, cost dozens of people, if not scores, their lives here in Lower Ninth Ward.

The second cause, though, are the operations of the oil, gas and pipeline companies. And they dredged about—I would say about two miles north of here, and they basically carved up this natural ridge that protected New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward from storm surge flooding. They carved it up looking for oil and gas. They didn’t find that much, but they never fixed what they broke. And that’s why the Flood Protection Authority is taking them to court. Thank God for them.

AMY GOODMAN: New Orleans community organizer Jacques Morial here in New Orleans. Special thanks to Sam Alcoff for that video report, and Amy Littlefield and Renée Feltz.

Well, now the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East is trying to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for the damage caused by thousands of miles of canals and pipelines carved through the wetlands. The board was created after Hurricane Katrina to provide independent oversight of flood protection in metropolitan New Orleans east of the Mississippi River. In July, the board filed suit against 97 oil and gas companies, including BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron, accusing them of killing plant life, eroding soil and carrying out a, quote, “mercilessly efficient, continuously expanding system of ecological destruction.”

The nine board members, most of whom are Republican, voted unanimously in favor of the lawsuit. But Louisiana’s Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, who has reportedly received over a million dollars in campaign donations from the oil industry, has staunchly opposed the effort. Governor Jindal said the suit would be a “litmus test” for new nominees to the flood board and vowed not to reappoint two members whose terms had expired, including the board’s vice president, John Barry, who spearheaded the lawsuit against the oil companies. On Monday night, at a politically charged meeting, the committee that selects nominees for the board chose not to renominate John Barry, citing his support for the lawsuit, which the majority on the board supported.

Well, John Barry joins us now. He’ll remain in his post until Governor Jindal chooses one of two people picked by the nominating committee to replace him. John Barry is also an award-winning historian and author of several books, including Rising Tide:The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.

John, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of what happened last night and the lawsuit that you have spearheaded.

JOHN BARRY: Well, the lawsuit is, of course, more important than anything that happened to me. Because of the destruction of the land—and the industry is not responsible for all of the destruction, but it is responsible for a good part of it—then increased storm surge attacks our levees, comes pounding at it. And we are basically suing to get them to abate the problem, to make the storm surge go back down to its natural—

AMY GOODMAN: I think we just lost John—

JOHN BARRY: I hear that you’re saying you just lost me. Is that the case? I’ll keep talking, anyway, in case you didn’t.

Anyway, the storm surge coming against our levees has increased because of the loss of the land, so we’re trying to get either the companies to fill in that land or to pay the levee board compensation so that we can improve the flood protection system to compensate.

AMY GOODMAN: John, can you talk about this raucous meeting yesterday and how it is when you had unanimous support of the levee board here in New Orleans yesterday—unanimous support for the lawsuit, yesterday they chose to not nominate you the vice president of the board?

JOHN BARRY: Well, I mean, politics did intrude. That’s kind of a unique nominating committee that was created after Katrina. It was supposed to be created to insulate the selection process from politics. If you look at the members of our board, it’s really kind of extraordinary. We have the author of the most advanced storm surge model in the world. We have—I mean, we used to have a past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. We’ve got engineers who’ve written college textbooks. This is a board of truly capable people. And the members of the nominating committee made no bones about it, that they were letting politics intervene. The governor was against the lawsuit. They didn’t want to offend the governor. So they didn’t renominate me. The governor had already said I wasn’t going to reappoint—get reappointed. He wasn’t going to do that. So, in terms of substance, it’s not that big a deal, but it is offensive to the process that this board, created to insulate us from politics, stated outright they were yielding to politics. More importantly, a majority of the board, no matter who is appointed, will still support the lawsuit. So the lawsuit is going to continue.

AMY GOODMAN: So, John Barry, what actually happens now? I mean, this is three years after the—after the whole—after the oil spill, three years. So, with this lawsuit, we see the other lawsuit in court today, just this week, but what happens now?

JOHN BARRY: Well, I can’t—I couldn’t really hear your question. However—interesting interview. You know, I will say that, you know, the processes are continuing legally. There is going to be an argument in a few weeks over whether or not the—goes to federal courts or goes back to state court. It’s not really that big a deal either way, although we would prefer it to stay in state court. And, you know, we’ll start the discovery process. I think when that discovery process is underway, we’ll find some very interesting things.

We—I think it’s important to note that we are not suing the oil companies simply because they have deep pockets. We are suing the oil companies because we believe they have broken the law. And that law-breaking is ongoing. The dredging in—throughout the state, they’ve dredged 10,000 miles of canals and pipelines to—OK, break? I—

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to break, and then we’ll come back so we can fix up the ability to hear each other. John Barry is vice president of the Southeast Louisiana flood board—until yesterday, when he lost his post, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East, 'til last—'til yesterday, when he lost his post because he has spearheaded this lawsuit against some 97 oil companies. He’ll hold onto the post 'til Governor Jindal appoints someone else. And when we come back from break, we'll be joined by environmental lawyer, activist, Monique Harden. Stay with us.

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