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|$126 million sought in Lake St. John Oilfield lawsuit|
Lawyers for Tensas Poppodoc, which owns property at Lake St. John, is asking a Concordia Parish jury for $126 million to cleanup a portion of that property which it says was contaminated by Chevron and other oil companies over the past six decades.
But one attorney for Chevron, in his opening argument Tuesday, indicated any money derived from the jury's actions would not go to cleaning up the site but into the pockets of dozens of lawyers.
"The lawyers are running this show," said Houston lawyer Robert Meadows, lead attorney for Chevron. He said the plaintiff's lawyers didn't want to clean up the site, they wanted to "clean up in court."
John Carmouche of the Gonzales firm of Talbot, Carmouche & Marcello is the lead attorney for Tensas Poppodoc, a company owned by Ken Killen Jr. Domiciled in Tensas Parish, the company owns 364 acres of the Lake St. John oil field in Concordia. The entire field totals some 14,000 acres.
Judge Leo Boothe is presiding in the case being heard at the courthouse in Vidalia in Seventh Judicial District Court.
Dozens of lawyers, paralegals, and others in the legal profession are involved in court proceedings. Both sides are using a screen to display graphics for jurors and some in the courtroom are operating laptops and other computer equipment.
A 12-member petit jury was seated on Monday for a trial that may last two weeks. Environmental issues and the state's history in regulating the oil and gas business will be among the topics argued. Experts in the oil and gas industries, including university professors from Centenary and Texas A&M, will testify.
Carmouche, on behalf of Killen and Tensas Poppodoc, said that since the 1940s the property in Concordia has been contaminated by "toxic water," a result of Chevron's oil and gas production activities which included the construction of two unlined pits, one known as the Applegate pit and the other as the Wilcox pit.
Through the years, said Carmouche, Chevron intentionally "deceived the state," by not complying with laws. Carmouche gave a brief history of the production of oil in the state and in the disposal of oilfield waste products.
Bottom line, he said, is that the drinking water has been contaminated.
Carmouche said it would take $126 million to restore the property to state standards, but added that if any money was left over after clean-up it would be returned to the oil companies.
Meadows, a managing partner with the Houston office of King & Spalding law firm, said Carmouche's claims were unwarranted.
"No one is sick" he said, adding that no doctors, toxicologists, or scientists have reported any problems with drinking water in the parish related to oil and gas.
The property value of Killen's 374 acres is about $450,000, he said, and the land has always, and continues, to support grazing and farming operations. He displayed two photos -- one showing the Wilcox pit covered with greenery and the Applegate pit, showing a crop of wheat ready for harvest.
Both pits were constructed in the 1940s for production waste.
The property was originally owned by Don Applegate, who initially signed papers giving Chevron, then known as the California Company, rights to drill for oil and gas when it began to develop the Lake St. John field in the 1940s. In 1974, Meadows said Applegate sold the land to Dr. Ken Killen, but kept the mineral rights.
The property was later transferred to Killen's children and in 1991 Ken Killen Jr. took ownership of the property.
According to Meadows, a bankruptcy lawyer told Killen Jr. that a lawsuit might be filed to collect money for alleged damage to the property caused by the oil production.
"Mr. Killen didn't go to the oil companies and ask that his property be cleaned up," said Meadows. Instead, he said, Killen "let lawyers" begin suit against Chevron and others.
"The lawyers are paying for their expert witnesses," he said. "The lawyers are paying for everything and there are lawyers like these looking for properties and hoping juries like you" will award damages.
Meadows said Chevron has always followed state guidelines as they evolved over the past decades.
Since this lawsuit was filed in 2005, more than 4,500 pages of documents have been filed by the plaintiff and defendants at the Clerk of Court's office.
The property was contaminated, according to Tensas Poppodoc's lawsuit, by the "operation or construction of various oil and gas facilities, including but not limited to pits, sumps, pipelines, flow lines, tank batteries, well heads, and measuring facilities."
Tensas Poppodoc alleges the defendants disposed oil field wastes in unlined pits resulting in seepage, contaminating soil and water, and that it used drilling fluids that were toxic and hazardous. It also alleges that materials used by the defendants included mercury, lead based compounds, hydrochloric acid, caustic soda and other chemicals and compounds.
The defendants sought "to conceal and cover up" this fact, according to the plaintiff, which is seeking funds for scientific study, funds to restore its properties to their original state, punitive or exemplary damages, and awards for unjust enrichment damages and mental anguish.
In addition to Chevron, other defendants include Devon Energy Production, McGowan Working Partners, Merit Energy Company, Merit Management Partners, Merit Energy Partners, South Operating & Management Company, Spokane Oil & Gas, Sunset Oil & Gas, Denbury Offshore, Diamond South, LSJ Exploration and Oil & ALELSJ.
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