Louisiana agency takes on oil industry over damage to delta


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    New Orleans' levee board is suing energy companies for damaging the Mississippi River delta by cutting canals through the marshland. The canals let in sea water, which kills marshes, eroding the city's protective buffer against storms. A map of the delta.

    - Frank Relle

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    Oil companies dug canals to transport equipment and crews and for drilling. Salt water intrusion has doubled the width of many canals. A canal near the Mississippi River Bohemia Spillway.

    - Frank Relle

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    The canals' damage to the delta marshes isn't evident. They have become tools for the local seafood and charter-fishing business, too. Dr. John Lopez of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation holds a crab trap pulled from a canal. A dormant natural-gas well is in the background.

    - Frank Relle

Eight years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has a new flood protection system -- $14 billion of levees, pumps and flood gates built by the Army Corps of Engineers. Residents, though, don't think that will be enough. The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - East, the local levee board, basically, says that as sea levels rise and wetlands down river get washed away, New Orleans will need more help.

And the agency knows exactly who should pay for it. It's suing 97 energy companies, saying they share the blame for the billions that New Orleans is going to have to spend to protect itself.

Trace a map of the Mississippi River south from New Orleans, and you see the land dissolve, from solid to a delicate lace. Zoom in real close on the delta, and you see thousands of sharp, geometric cuts.

"Look at these canals, I mean, they were just going the shortest distance between two points, with whatever's in the middle didn't matter, just cut across," says Dr. John Lopez, who  studies the river delta for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.

In the 1930s, he says, oil and gas companies started plowing through the swamp to get what was underneath. First, you dug a canal wide enough to fit a barge with all the gear and workers. Then, you drilled down. But maybe you didn't hit quite the right spot.

"You might have a dense network of canals, but if you want to move over 200 feet you've got to dredge a new canal," Lopez says. "And that's why you see these spider maps of oil and gas canals."

This happened all over the swamp, with pretty much zero regard for the land. "For centuries, swamps were the equivalent of wasteland," Lopez says. "The terminology was almost interchangeable."

Then, around the 1970s, science proved the value of marshland -- as a habitat for all kinds of species, and for flood protection. The state listened, and passed regulations. But the damage was done.

 Today the canals are still used -- for industry and recreation. Out on the water, we pass a barge ferrying equipment offshore. Hissing, clicking natural gas wells…the  so-called Christmas trees of pipes, valves and knobs stick up from the water, just a few feet away from crab traps.

The landscape doesn't  look damaged, but, Lopez says, "These canals are a lot wider than what they were dredged. They've eroded. That's about 200 feet right there."

Likely double its original size, he says. The canals let in saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico. That eats away the marsh.  So when a hurricane swirls across the Gulf, walls of water now build, unchecked, and push in to New Orleans, 50 miles away.

"The loss of the buffer means that more water washes against the levee system, John Barry says. "Then we have to build larger stronger more expensive protection systems than we would otherwise have to do.

Barry wrote a history of Louisiana flooding, "Rising Tide." He's also vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - East. "At least for a few more weeks," he says.

Maybe only a few more weeks, because his agency is suing the energy companies, and Gov. Bobby Jindal has demanded it drop the lawsuit. Energy is Louisiana's largest industry.

Barry says the oil companies should pay their fair share. "I don't say the industry has done nothing. I do say it hasn't done anything like nearly enough."

Louisiana has a master plan for flood protection, but not the billions needed to fund it.

Some parts of the state don't want to wait. They're paying for the work themselves. And they say they need the oil companies' help. Southwest of New Orleans, watery Terrebonne Parish has its own system of flood gates.

Reggie Dupre directs the Terrebonne levee district. "We built this system on our own," he says.

The oil industry owns much of the land here. Dupre says the lawsuit could endanger key relationships. "I need right-of-ways and places to build mitigation," he says. "Well, I get free right-of-ways and very good cooperation from these companies."

And oil and gas companies are not to blame for land loss here, he says. It's the levees upriver that killed this marsh -- cut off the land's access to fresh water.

Louisiana politicians, scientists and lawyers are in for a long battle over that question. What is to blame for disappearing wetlands? And who will pay for protection as sea levels, and risk, keep rising.


Production assistance on this story provided by Nicholas Gremillion.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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