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Louisiana is losing land to the Gulf of Mexico. And each mile that washes away costs the state in industry, infrastructure and disrupted lives. Well, now Louisiana is looking to recoup some of those damages, and as WWNO's Teagan Wendland reports, it's turning to an old friend.
TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Louisiana is an oil and gas state. It's long relied on money from offshore sales to fund part of the state budget. But that's come at a cost. Guy McInnis is president of St. Bernard Parish, just south of New Orleans - in Louisiana, we have parishes instead of counties. McInnis stands at the edge of Lake Borgne, near a city pumping station.
GUY MCINNIS: We're looking at some of the central wetlands of St. Bernard Parish that are now, as you can see, an open lake. And before, this was prime wetlands and marshes.
WENDLAND: Marshes that once protected St. Bernard Parish from storm surge. It took a big hit during Hurricane Katrina. Oil companies had to get through this marshy area to their shallow water wells.
MCINNIS: They would dig a ditch to get their boat to the oil well. And that ditch was not replaced or filled in at the end of the time that they used that oil well.
WENDLAND: These small channels created mazes through the marshes that eventually eroded into open water. So when the governor said McInnis should sue the oil and gas companies for that damage, he signed up. It wasn't an easy choice. This is a guy who has a mural of an oil refinery inside his parish office. The state's price tag to fight coastal land loss is about $90 billion. That'll take some support from Congress. The state's new Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, says suing the energy industry is part of that.
JOHN BEL EDWARDS: Before we can ever have any hope of asking the taxpayers around the country to come to Louisiana and help us restore our coast, we have to be able to show them that we did everything that we could reasonably that is within our power. And certainly, you can't do that if you don't seek to hold those people accountable who damage the coast to begin with.
WENDLAND: Suing the companies, which include big ones like Exxon Mobil and Shell, was a pretty controversial idea at first. Edwards has made it a cause, saying all of the coastal parishes should file suit or he'll do it for them. A few have, but others are resistant.
Meantime, he's facing roadblocks as the state attorney general attempts to stop the process. Gifford Briggs the acting president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, an industry lobbying group.
GIFFORD BRIGGS: We don't think these lawsuits are necessary. We believe that these lawsuits are driving investment out of Louisiana into other states and other communities, that it's harmful to Louisiana.
WENDLAND: Many acknowledge the companies are partially responsible for the damage. But Briggs says the state should do its job by enforcing its own permit requirements rather than turning to the courts. He says it's bad for business. The governor's office disagrees.
MATTHEW BLOCK: This is not about demonizing the oil and gas industry.
WENDLAND: Matthew Block is Governor Edwards' top lawyer. He says sure, oil and gas is the most important industry in the state.
BLOCK: But that does not mean that we cannot hold the oil and gas industry responsible for destruction of the coast.
WENDLAND: By some estimates, 60 percent of Louisiana's land loss is caused by oil companies. If one or more of the suits succeeds, it could put the industry on the hook for billions of dollars.
Rob Verchick is an environmental law professor at Loyola University. He says these suits could set a precedent. Many other states face problems like land loss and erosion.
ROBERT VERCHICK: And they are struggling right now to find the money to address those issues. And so these lawsuits are going to occur, whether our lawsuits in Louisiana go forward or not.
WENDLAND: But all of those other states may not have a longtime friend in oil and gas they can turn to in times of need.
For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in New Orleans.
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