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Landrieu sidesteps state debate over levee board lawsuit, but says lawsuits won't save coast

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu distanced herself Monday from a lawsuit filed by a New Orleans-area levee board against more than 90 oil and gas companies, saying litigation isn't the way to restore her state's lost wetlands.

"I do not think that lawsuits are going to save the coast of Louisiana," Landrieu told the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

But Landrieu, a Democrat, also wouldn't wade into the ongoing legislative debate about whether state lawmakers should pass bills sought by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal to nullify the lawsuit.

"I am not going to get in the middle of that debate. This is a state issue. They can decide what they want," she said when questioned about the bills.

Landrieu is chair of the U.S. Senate committee that deals with energy policy. The lawsuit puts her between two areas in which she's been a strong advocate: rebuilding Louisiana's coast and supporting the oil and gas industry.

PHOTO: U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu speaks to the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday, April 7, 2014. Landrieu dodged questions about state legislation seeking to undo a lawsuit filed by a south Louisiana levee board against oil and gas companies. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu speaks to the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday, April 7, 2014. Landrieu dodged questions about state legislation seeking to undo a lawsuit filed by a south Louisiana levee board against oil and gas companies. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

The levee board sued the oil and gas companies, blaming their drilling activities for coastal erosion in the state's vulnerable wetlands.

Jindal is supporting a series of bills by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, that seek to undermine the lawsuit and rework the flood authority board to limit its independence. Several of the proposals have been moving through the Senate without roadblock so far.

The governor has called the board's lawsuit a windfall for trial lawyers because of the contingency fee arrangement, which would give the attorneys a slice of any judgment rather than a flat fee.

Critics of Adley's bills say they would introduce political meddling into a process designed to be free of such interference and would improperly shield the oil and gas industry from its role in Louisiana's erosion problems.

Landrieu didn't directly comment on the merits of the lawsuit.

"I understand how frustrated people are that live in south Louisiana and they have been seeing their communities literally wash away and they don't see any help on the way," she said.

She said the best way for Louisiana to get more money for its multibillion-dollar coastal restoration plan involved her fight at the federal level to steer a greater slice of the dollars generated by oil and gas drilling off Louisiana's shores to state coffers rather than the federal treasury.

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