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Highlights from “The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever” in The New York Times Magazine

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Whitehall Canal, in the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary.Jeff Riedel@NYT“The idea of making the industry live up to its legal responsibility is not going to die.”John M. Barry

Yesterday, Sunday, Oct. 6, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story titled “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever.” Aside from the cover of Time, a story does not get much more prominent coverage than a cover article in the magazine of The New York Times. Nathaniel Rich, who has written intelligently and sensitively about New Orleans (see here and here), now gives an overview of the environmental reasons why the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-E) last July filed a suit against nearly 100 oil and gas corporations for failing to honor the terms of their licenses to do business in the wetlands of Louisiana and have caused catastrophic environmental damage to the state’s land. Rich also profiles the leader of that lawsuit, author and environmental activist John M. Barry, who was until recently the vice president of SLFPA-E, and the unprecedented efforts of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, with the help of compliant or fearful legislators, to kill the lawsuit in the state legislature rather than let it work its way through the courts.

Read All About It—And Restore Louisiana Now

Following are some highlights from “Waterworld.” We hope you will forward this post, or the article itself, and also check out John Barry’s new foundation, Restore Louisiana Now. We also urge you to join us in pressing the Jindal administration and the Louisiana state representatives to support efforts to make the oil and gas industry pay for the damage it has done and to restore the critical wetlands that act as a buffer against hurricane storm surge. Scientists say about every 2.5 square miles of wetlands absorbs a foot of storm surge. The oil and gas industry has already conceded responsibility for 36 percent of land loss—but they have not paid for damages. Jindal’s plan, apparently, is to let industry off the hook and to let the Coastal Master Plan for restoration to fall on the taxpayers—a curious position for an anti-tax politician.

This politically ambitious governor, who imagines he has a chance at becoming president of the United States, continues in his efforts to bend the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (intended to be politically independent) to his will. The lawsuit’s attorney has requested that a federal judge rule on the constitutionality of a controversial bill, pushed for and eagerly signed by Jindal, that would kill the lawsuit. The judge will hear that motion, along with motions filed by oil companies to dismiss the suit, on Nov. 12.

From “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever”

Each hour, Louisiana loses about a football field’s worth of land. Each day, the state loses nearly the accumulated acreage of every football stadium in the N.F.L. Were this rate of land loss applied to New York, Central Park would disappear in a month. Manhattan would vanish within a year and a half. The last of Brooklyn would dissolve four years later. New Yorkers would notice this kind of land loss. The world would notice this kind of land loss. But the hemorrhaging of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands has gone largely unremarked upon beyond state borders. This is surprising, because the wetlands, apart from their unique ecological significance and astounding beauty, buffer the impact of hurricanes that threaten not just New Orleans but also the port of South Louisiana, the nation’s largest; just under 10 percent of the country’s oil reserves; a quarter of its natural-gas supply; a fifth of its oil-refining capacity; and the gateway to its internal waterway system. The attenuation of Louisiana, like any environmental disaster carried beyond a certain point, is a national-security threat.

Canals dredged by the energy industry south of Lafitte.The land loss is swiftly reversing the process by which the state was built. As the Mississippi shifted its course over the millenniums, spraying like a loose garden hose, it deposited sand and silt in a wide arc. This sediment first settled into marsh and later thickened into solid land. But what took 7,000 years to create has been nearly destroyed in the last 85. . . .

Beneath the surface, the oil and gas industry has carved more than 50,000 wells since the 1920s, creating pockets of air in the marsh that accelerate the land’s subsidence. The industry has also incised 10,000 linear miles of pipelines, which connect the wells to processing facilities; and canals, which allow ships to enter the marsh from the sea. Over time, as seawater eats away at the roots of the adjacent marsh, the canals expand. By its own estimate, the oil and gas industry concedes that it has caused 36 percent of all wetlands loss in southeastern Louisiana. . . .

A better analogy than disappearing football fields has been proposed by the historian John M. Barry, who has lived in the French Quarter on and off since 1972. Barry likens the marsh to a block of ice. The reduction of sediment in the Mississippi, the construction of levees and the oil and gas wells “created a situation akin to taking the block of ice out of the freezer, so it begins to melt.” Dredging canals and pipelines “is akin to stabbing that block of ice with an ice pick.”

The oil and gas industry has extracted about $470 billion in natural resources from the state in the last two decades, with the tacit blessing of the federal and state governments and without significant opposition from environmental groups. Oil and gas is, after all, Louisiana’s leading industry, responsible for around a billion dollars in annual tax revenue. Last year, industry executives had reason to be surprised, then, when they were asked to pay damages. The request came in the form of the most ambitious, wide-ranging environmental lawsuit in the history of the United States. . . .

When John Barry met with Congressman Bobby Jindal (2006): In Washington, where Barry lives for part of the year, he met with a freshman representative from the state’s First Congressional District, which includes much of southeastern Louisiana: Bobby Jindal. He begged Jindal to demand action from the White House [following Hurricane Katrina]. New Orleans couldn’t count on its mayor, or on the governor, he said; the city needed a hero on Capitol Hill. After speaking for two hours, Barry recalled, Jindal said that taking a leadership position on Hurricane Katrina “didn’t fit his timing for running for governor.” (Jindal, who declined to comment for this article, was elected governor in 2007.) “I left in total disgust,” Barry said. . . .

The state did have a plan in place to rebuild the barrier islands and coastal wetlands. Originally published in 2007 and revised in 2012, the so-called Coastal Master Plan was endorsed by scientists, as well as the oil and gas industry. . . . The state, however, had not figured out how it was going to finance the Coastal Master Plan. The main source of funding would be the settlement from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill lawsuits, which is expected to be as much as $20 billion. That would leave about $30 billion.

Barry believed that other oil and gas companies should also contribute. His argument was simple: Because the industry conceded responsibility for 36 percent of land loss, it should pay its part: $18 billion would be a start.

near Myrtle Grove, La.[Barry] knew that nearly every company that has operated in the marshes since the 1920s has used permits obliging them to maintain and repair any environmental damage it caused. In 1980, Louisiana began adhering to a federal law that required companies operating in the marsh—a list that includes ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Shell, BP, Chevron and Koch Industries—to restore “as near as practicable to their original condition” any canals they dredge. After consulting with legal experts, Barry became convinced that most companies never filled in their canals and that the state had failed to enforce the law. In fact, many of the projects listed in the Coastal Master Plan called for plugging canals that should have been restored years ago. . . .

“Louisianians who make money in oil buy politicians, or pieces of politicians, as Kentuckians in the same happy situation buy racehorses. Oil gets into politics, and politicians, making money in office, get into oil. The state slithers around it.” These sentences, written by A. J. Liebling in 1960 at the dawn of the deep-water offshore-drilling era, seem quaint when read today. Louisiana no longer slithers in oil; it drowns in it. It is also high on natural gas, thanks to the recent boom in hydraulic fracturing. And at some point along the way, the state, which has the oil and gas, ceded political control to the industry, which needs the oil and gas. . . .

One peculiarity about the fight over the lawsuit is that few industries are in greater need of coastal restoration than oil and gas. The next major hurricane that hits the Gulf Coast will put at risk billions of dollars of industry infrastructure—refineries, oil tanks, terminals and pipelines. This is why the industry endorsed the Coastal Master Plan. A second oddity is that Jindal, a hero of the anti-tax faction of the national Republican Party, who last year tried to eliminate the state’s corporate and income taxes, has now put himself in the position of allowing the largest single bill facing his state—for the balance of the Coastal Master Plan—to fall almost entirely upon taxpayers.

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Check out Restore Louisiana Now, and see the video  from the Coastal Conservation Conversation held at Loyola University on August 20 (highlights video clips here). Thanks to Ms. Anne Mueller of The Lens, a major sponsor of the Conversation.

Also, see Nathaniel Rich’s new piece in The New Republic, “Louisiana Has a Wild Plan to Save Itself from Global Warming (too bad the state is being destroyed from within),” and his review of Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street: A History and Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital for The New York Review of Books, “The Heart of New Orleans.”

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Land Loss in 1984 compared with 2014

1984–2014

 

Map source: Jamon Van Den Hoek, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Map note: Land areas are derived from Landsat imagery. Photographs by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.

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Louisiana’s Vanishing Wetlands and “Most Ambitious” Enviro Lawsuit Featured in New York Times Magazine

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

John BarryThis weekend you’ll want to go to your nearest newsstand and buy a copy of the Sunday New York Times and go straight to the Magazine for an article of major importance. The cover shows an oil industry “shortcut” canal sliced through Louisiana’s Barataria-Terrebonne estuary, overlaid with the words “Every Hour, an Acre of Louisiana Sinks into the Sea. Who Is to Blame?” The article, by Nathaniel Rich, focuses on the “high-stakes fight [that] has broken out over who is to blame—and who should bear the astronomical cost of restoring the coast” as the Louisiana wetlands continue to vanish into the Gulf of Mexico. Every year Louisiana loses 25 square miles of land. Every day, 50 acres.

Rich spends quality time with John M. Barry (right), the widely respected author of the award-winning Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America and vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East that filed an historic lawsuit in July 2013 to force about 100 oil and gas companies to pay for damages to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. (Click here for more about the lawsuit; see also “Understanding Louisiana’s Environmental Crisis” on our Environment page.)

We’ll have more to say about this well-written article in the next few days—just wanted to alert you that it’s coming, and to urge you to “read all about it,” and spread the word. Buy the Sunday paper—help keep the presses rolling.

Nathaniel Rich, by the way, a novelist, is the son of New York magazine contributing writer and former New York Times columnist Frank Rich. In July Nathaniel reviewed Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street: A History and Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital for The New York Review of Books in a fine piece titled “The Heart of New Orleans.”

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Photographs by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.

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How Occupy Wall Street Is *Not* Like the Tea Party

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

In a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times, replying to an Oct. 22 front-page article titled “Wall St. Protest Isn’t Like Ours, Tea Party Says,” Oberlin College professor of politics Stephen Crowley points out an essential distinction:

There is another crucial difference between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements, and one that is likely to be played down by Tea Party supporters.

As studies by political scientists and others have demonstrated, the Tea Party movement received sizable donations from wealthy backers seeking to use the movement to further their goals of tax cuts for the wealthy, the privatization of Social Security and the deregulation of the private sector. [our emphasis]

The Occupy Wall Street movement has been criticized for lacking clear demands, but with its unambiguous denunciation of large corporations, the financial elite and the 1 percent of wealthiest Americans, this is one movement unlikely to be co-opted by wealthy benefactors.

Stephen Crowley  |  Cleveland Heights, Ohio  |  Oct. 22, 2011

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See other Letters to the Editor under the heading “Occupiers, Tea Partiers and a Dash of Star Power” published on Thursday, Oct. 27, here.

Among the wealthy backers of the Tea Party referred to by Professor Crowley, to name only a few, are the billionaire, pro-corporate activist Koch brothers, FreedomWorks, and Fox News. Explore further at Media Matters for America, Think Progress, and Right Wing Watch.

 

 

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Taxing the Rich: Still a Good and Fair Idea

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Budget cutting is all the rage; a recent attempt to let the Bush-era tax cuts expire was defeated by Obama’s deal with the Republican congressional leadership. (See our reaction to that regrettable deal here and here.) In this time of (unnecessary) revenue shortfalls and budget crises, who speaks for raising taxes? We do. And we’re not alone. (For example, Bill Gates Sr., a wealthy man, believes the rich should pay more.)

Recent letters to the New York Times in response to a superficially reasonable column by David Brooks spoke well about the need to raise revenues by taxing the wealthy, reducing tax breaks for the rich and for corporations, and, when cutting the budget, to include defense spending. (As is often the case, the best part of the paper is the Letters to the Editor.) The writers convey their views well, so we’ll say no more except to commend their good sense.

 

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If you feel the same way, please write letters to the editors of your own local papers, and phone your local news stations and the news networks listed here (lower page) and say so. Demand that producers present the views of proponents of fair taxation of upper-income Americans—such as the Citizens for Tax Justice and the National Priorities Project—rather than only presenting the arguments of “fiscally conservative” budget-slashers. Thank you.

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Martha Serpas: Our Life, Between Sea and Oil

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

In today’s New York Times, Louisiana poet Martha Serpas gives a rich and sensitive account of Louisiana’s environmental predicament by focusing on Bayou Lafourche where she was raised and the Cajun people who have survived through generations of “persecution, banishment and years of deadly storms.” These people and their culture—along with the entire southern part of the state—are now at risk from encroaching BP oil and salt water erosion of the delicate coastline.

Her essay is subtle and nuanced—the energy industry is not cast as a one-dimensional villain, and she acknowledges that “we Louisianans have not always acted in our own best interests”—and we’re happy to see that the Times editors gave her the space her subject deserves, room to explain some complex history and political, cultural, and environmental issues.

Well, enough clumsy summarizing. Please, read “Our Life, Between Sea and Oil” for yourself in its entirety below the fold. It’s well written, and we highly recommend it. We also hope you’ll watch the video clip of Veins in the Gulf, a feature-length documentary about Louisiana’s disappearing coastline. Martha Serpas is a participant in this film that traces the history of the environmental crisis of southern Louisiana and its threat to Cajun culture whose music, cuisine, and joie de vivre have enriched the nation and the world. The film is due out in September.

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Video Shows U.S. Killing of Reuters Employees in Baghdad

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

WikiLeaks.org has released a formerly classified U.S. military video that shows the view from an Apache helicopter gunship as U.S. forces fire on unarmed Iraqi civilians, killing 12, including a Reuters news agency photographer and his driver, in Baghdad in July 2007. The footage shows civilians who are clearly unarmed, yet the pilots assert “we have five to six individuals with AK-47s. Request permission to engage.” Later in the video the U.S. forces fire on a van that has stopped to pick up the one wounded survivor of the assault (the Reuters driver, Saeed Chmagh). Two children are visible in the front seat of the van when U.S. pilots request, and receive, permission to fire on the van. “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle,” one pilot says.

The release of the video was announced by WikiLeaks at a news conference on Monday at the National Press Club in Washington. Reuters had pressed for release of the video, which it obtained from whistle-blowers in the military, because the film showed the killing of two of its employees, photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and the driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40.

“Look at those dead bastards,” one pilot says. “Nice,” the other responds.

One hundred thirty-nine journalists have been killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.

Click here for Elisabeth Bumiller’s report for the New York Times.

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Senators, a Vote for AmeriCorps Expansion Is a Vote for America’s Wetland Conservation Corps

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

LNW_AWCCThere is a good, bipartisan bill up for a vote tonight (3/26) or Friday on a generous expansion of funding for AmeriCorps, the national and community service program launched by President Clinton. The bill has been strongly supported by President Obama and by Senator Edward Kennedy, a co-sponsor. The bill would give about $6 billion over the next five years and allow more than a tripling of membership. The House approved the measure by 321 to 105 last week. Senate sponsors are Democrats Kennedy and Barbara Mikulski, and Republicans Orrin Hatch and Mike Enzi. Senators, we salute you.

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Kristolnacht at The New York Times

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

LNW_kristol-happyAn Open Letter to the Editors Of the New York Times on The Hiring of William Kristol

Levees Not War is strongly opposed to Kristol’s becoming a New York Times columnist because that paper would give him an even more prominent platform (in addition to his magazine The Weekly Standard and his appearances on Fox News) from which to push for war with Iran as lustily as he pushed for war with Iraq—a ‘regime change’ he believes is going just fine.

The following letter has been e-mailed and snail-mailed to the publisher and editors of the New York Times. Names of executive and managing editors, etc., along with the Times’s mailing address, appear below, along with some choice quotations from the opinings of William Kristol.

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