U.S. Water News Online
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Legislation to change the way Louisiana
landowners can sue for damages to groundwater beneath their property
stems from a lawsuit brought 10 years ago against Shell Oil.
When Shell Oil's 30-year lease on Calcasieu Parish land belonging
to J. Michael Veron's family ran out in 1991, it left land so damaged
that grass would no longer grow, said Veron, a Lake Charles attorney.
Instead of restoring the property to its original condition as
required by the contract, he said, Shell left its equipment and
extensive contamination from leaky salt water injection wells.
He said his family sued after a year of fruitless negotiation, and
the suit was tried in May 2000. The jury awarded the Verons about $50
million, more than half of which is supposed to be used to clean up
any damage to water in the Chicot Aquifer beneath the property.
Shell appealed, saying the judgment should have been limited to
the value of the property, far below the millions awarded, and that
Veron's expert never tested for damage to the aquifer. Shell also
argued private landowners could not be compensated for aquifer
contamination, noting groundwater is a public resource.
Eventually the matter reached the state Supreme Court.
While some issues are still being considered, the court ruled in
February that Veron and his family, not the state, have control of
the money to rehabili tate the aquifer. And nobody can make them use
it to clean up the groundwater.
Veron said that is moot: ``We will definitely spend the money on
cleanup -- there is no question on that. It would be stupid not to;
all you are doing is leaving the problem to your children.''
Veron's family has not yet received any money from Shell.
But the high court ruling alarmed some lawmakers and Gov. Mike
Foster's office, prompting legislation to change the way landowners
can sue for damages to groundwater beneath their property.
``That surprised everybody, that all this money could be given to
a private party to clean up a public asset,'' said Rep. William
Daniel, D-Baton Rouge, sponsor of a bill being pushed by the Foster
administration and the oil and gas industry.
The bill narrowly won approval from the Senate Environmental
Quality Committee, in a 4-3 vote.
Originally drafted to be applied to Veron's lawsuit, the bill has
since been significantly reworked and now would only be retroactive
to lawsuits filed after 1993.
Under the proposal, the state's Departments of Environmental
Quality and Natural Resources would automatically intervene in any
lawsuit in which the plaintiffs claim groundwater is in danger or has
If a jury or judge finds that the groundwater is in jeopardy, the
judge would oversee the remediation, perhaps appointing an expert to
come up with a plan, as well as considering agency, defendant and
plaintiff proposals. The groundwater immediately beneath the surface
would be exempt from this legislation, Daniel said.
While proponents of the bill say the changes are necessary to make
sure any money awarded to remediate groundwater gets spent on fixing
damage to the public water resources, landowners and trial attorneys
said Daniel's bill wasn't the proper solution.
The procedure would bog down the already lengthy legal process,
they said, as well as draw a distinction between the surface property
rights of landowners and groundwater that is not easy to define.
``Damage to groundwater is both a private and public injury,''
said Bill Goodell, an attorney for the Roy O. Martin Lumber Co.,
which owns 600,000 acres in the state.
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