BATON ROUGE — The signing by a Louisiana parish president of a contract with a law firm with a history of filing environment damage suits is “very disturbing,” according to the president of the state’s oldest industry trade association.
Chris John, president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, told the Louisiana Record he believes the move signals that St. Bernard Parish is poised to file suit against companies within the industry.
St Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis signed the contract within days of taking office on Jan. 12.
McInnis cited a December 2013 parish council vote authorizing his predecessor, David Peralta, to sign the contract as one reason for the move. Peralta did not sign the contract before leaving office.
McInnis also said he won’t ask attorneys at the law firm, Talbot, Carmouche & Marcello, to file suit until approval is granted by the parish council. The signing of the contract is controversial also as three attorneys at the law firm contributed $15,000 to McInnis’ parish president campaign.
The contract signing suggests elements within the council, including the president, do want to pursue oil and gas companies over alleged environmental damage dating back decades, John said.
“It’s very disturbing that the parish is on the brink of filing suit against the oil and gas industry when frankly over 35 percent of the parish income comes from oil and gas taxes,” John said. “Seven hundred people in the parish are directly involved with the industry.”
The trade association’s president also questioned whether McInnis had the authority to sign the contract, given that authorization was granted by the previous parish council to the previous president.
“Certainly there is a question over whether a contract voted on by the previous council is still legally valid,” John said.
There is push back from some within the parish council, a development John described as “very warranted.”
Councilman Nathan Gorbaty told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that Innis' decision to sign the contract without first discussing it with the council was a mistake.
Gorbaty proposed ordinances canceling the contract and instead hiring a different firm. He agreed to delay action on those ordinances so council members can hear from both law firms and from representatives of the energy companies.
Talbot, Carmouche & Marcello, of Baton Rouge, has represented private landowners in actions taken against oil and gas companies, so-called “legacy lawsuits.”
But notably the firm, in 2013, filed 21 lawsuits on behalf of Plaquemines Parish and seven on behalf of Jefferson Parish, against oil, gas and pipeline companies.
The suits accused dozens of oil, gas and pipeline companies of causing damage to wetlands from dredging and other operations. It also accused them of improperly disposing of waste materials.
In November 2015, Plaquemines Parish Council dropped the suits but those taken on behalf of Jefferson Parish are still before the courts.
The signing of the contract is controversial in part because of the contributions made to McInnis by the law firm’s attorneys. The parish president said he had no prior relationship with the law firm, before adding that it was the previous president Peralta who recommended the firm.
“We have been following this very closely," John told the Louisiana Record. "St. Bernard Parish has had a wonderful relationship with oil and gas. This parish needs oil and gas, and oil and gas needs this parish. That’s been the situation for 100 years. It’s very disturbing to even consider the lawsuits over permits acquired many, many years ago.”