For coastal damage assessment, parish and DA both have a role

By now the news is pout, broken by The Times and detailed in an updated article that appears in this issue, that Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. has accepted the Louisiana Department of Natural Resource’s request that he perform an assessment of damage allegedly caused by oil companies. The belief that the oil companies are fiscally responsible to coastal parishes and the state will be measured against permits the companies have obtained for decades and examinations of whether their provisions have been violated. There is also a potential that some companies obtained no permits at all, as the law requires.

One person clearly unhappy about Waitz’s appointment, and the district attorney’s contractual agreement with two local law firms to do the work, is Parish President Gordon Dove.

Dove cites several points which he maintains prove the district attorney should have no role in holding oil and gas companies accountable for damage that may be discovered in the inventory presented to LDNR by the chosen lawyers. Parish Attorney Julius Hebert, Dove says, has been doing the appropriate work of auditing coastal zone permits with the aid of at least four other lawyers authorized as assistant parish attorneys in accordance with his contract. None of the parish attorneys are working for free. Waitz is not permitted to charge the state. His contract with the two law firms, one headed up by veteran attorney Berwick Duval and the other whose task has been assigned to veteran lawyer Charles Bourque, bars contingency payments. The costs and fees, in accordance with

state coastal laws, will either be borne by the firms doing the work, or be paid by the oil companies in accordance with any directives that might be made by a judge. The attorneys appear to have faith in the idea that oil companies will generally settle any claims rather than go to trial. We lack the knowledge to know if they are correct. But we don’t know either lawyer to be a gambler.

Hebert and the assistants need gamble nothing. But they will get paid regardless.

The contract with Waitz entered into by Duval and Bourque on behalf of their respective firms does not authorize them to file litigation. The letter appointing Waitz from LDNR states that he is not required or being asked specifically to file a suit.

We respect Parish President Gordon Dove’s understanding of the delicate relationship between oil and gas companies and Terrebonne Parish, as well as his long-standing involvement with the oil and gas industry, which gives him keen insight into how such relationships need be managed.

But we are also concerned by a letter sent to oil companies by Hebert on Dove’s behalf, which stresses the parish’s close relationship with them and invites them to talk about their responsibilities under coastal zoning laws. There is ample fuel in that letter for arguments that if indeed violations of the coastal zone law are found, that the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government may have difficulty enforcing its rights under the law. These assurances implied in Hebert’s letter make suspicions that even if the oil companies are engaged at some point in talks with Terrebonne, the parish has already stripped itself of its potential litigation hammer.

Joe Waitz Jr. is no stranger to the oilfield. Indeed, his own admittedly bad investment in an exploration venture called Baby Oil was used as a hammer against him during his last re- election campaign.

We find it unfortunate that Mr. Dove has not welcomed the intervention of the district attorney, which shields him and the council from criticism by oil companies. He has, however, acknowledged his own friendship with Waitz and made clear he has no animus toward the district attorney in regard to this decision. We are aware that Waitz has entered this fray reluctantly, but we applaud his courage in taking it on. It is our hope that the parish government do his job for the state as requested with no impediments. Certainly the district attorney doing his statutorily recognized job should pose no conflict with the work Dove says his attorneys are already doing for the parish government. At least not if their task is to objectively assess the state of affairs with Terrebonne Parish’s coast, and if wrong-doing is determined to take the appropriate actions.