Content tagged “Disaster and accident”

Flood insurance becomes political tool in La. Senate race

It's been months since Congress acted to protect thousands of homeowners from dramatic premium increases under the National Flood Insurance Program. But for Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and the leading Republican in the race to take her seat, the issue is still very much alive. As Gannett Louisiana reports, Landrieu and Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, regularly remind Louisiana voters of their individual roles in helping win passage of the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act. The bill, signed into law on March 21, caps annual increases in federal flood insurance premiums at 18%. The issue is among the tools that Landrieu and Cassidy, locked in a heated election race, use to score political points on the campaign trail. The race could be crucial in determining which party controls the Senate beginning next year. "This is an issue that both will use, and have been using, to say, 'Look, here's an example of what I've been able to accomplish in Washington, D.C.,''' says Joshua...

A Day in the Life of a Top 100 Private Company

Photographer Don Kadair spent a day each with three of the firms on our list of Top 100 Private Companies to capture the essence of their success.

Getting to 40%

Baton Rouge entrepreneur Scott Van Kerkhove is a political anomaly: a Republican who takes the dangers of man-made climate change seriously. Not because he thinks there's definitive proof on either side of the issue, but because he thinks the possibility of making the planet uninhabitable for future generations isn't worth the risk.

La. beaches among nation's worst for water quality, report says

A new report out from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, says Louisiana ranks No. 26 out of 30 U.S. states for beach water quality. The 24th edition of the "Testing the Waters" report says that an analysis of water quality data at 3,485 coastal U.S. beaches last year found that 10% of all monitoring samples exceeded an Environmental Protection Agency public health guideline for bacteria pollution. The report says 25 of Louisiana's 31 coastal beaches were monitored last year, and that of the 836 water samples taken from them 19% were found to exceed the EPA guideline. Grand Isle State Park had the highest percent of samples exceeding the guideline, at 42%, the report says; followed by Cypremort Point State Park in St. Mary Parish, at 31%; and Rutherford Beach in Cameron Parish, at 27%. While none of Louisiana's beaches are included on the report's "Superstar Beaches" list of the nation's 35 beaches with the least water quality issues, the state is...

Fire damages storage facility at Geismar chemical plant

A late morning fire at a storage unit sent thick smoke billowing from the Westlake Chemical plant in Geismar today, but officials say damage was limited to a storage facility. The fire reportedly began around 11:15 a.m. and was put out about an hour later. State police spokesman Lt. J.B. Slaton tells The Associated Press that the storage unit held a chemical used in the manufacturing of polyvinyl chloride. Dave Hansen, senior vice president of administration at the facility, tells WAFB the storage area is not associated with any of the operating units at the plant. He says no injuries were reported, adding updated information will be provided as it becomes available. Slaton confirms no injuries were reported and all plant workers were accounted for. Louisiana State Police said there were no evacuations and no off-site impact. The Ascension Parish Sheriff's...

Business Disaster 101

While forecasters are predicting a mild year, it's never too early to start preparing for the worst—particularly when not all threats to your business come from Mother Nature.

LSU to participate in new EPA water task force

A task force established by the Environmental Protection Agency to curtail farmland pollution that flows into the Mississippi River has reached a research agreement with 12 universities, including LSU. The EPA says states already collaborate with universities on local water quality research and agricultural programs, but to date there hasn't been a formal process for sharing university research and ideas across the 12 task force states. The Associated Press reports that along with LSU, the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Task Force will work with Purdue University, University of Illinois, University of Arkansas, University of Kentucky, Mississippi State University and Ohio State University. Other institutions involved include University of Tennessee, University of Missouri, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin and Iowa State University. The EPA says the agreement announced this morning brings additional expertise to develop farm runoff reduction strategies.

'Business Report': Will new flood insurance act fix problems created for La.'s housing market by the first law?

Louisiana politicians celebrated in March when President Barack Obama signed the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act. As David Jacobs writes in a Business Report feature from the current issue, Sen. Mary Landrieu and Congressman Bill Cassidy—in the midst of a bruising Senate election contest—competed for credit. "Ironically, every Louisiana congressional member in 2012 voted for the Biggert-Waters Act, which set in motion the extreme National Flood Insurance Program rate hikes the more recent bill is meant to soften," writes Jacobs. "And despite the recent victory lap, it's not clear that property owners and buyers can count on the affordable flood insurance the new law's title promises." "We're still concerned, even with the new law," says Donna Wolff, president-elect of the Greater Baton Rouge Association of Realtors. "All this did is kind of postpone things." While lack of flood insurance affordability isn't the crisis in the Capital Region that it is...

Flood fallout

Louisiana politicians celebrated in March when President Barack Obama signed the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Congressman Bill Cassidy, in the midst of a bruising Senate election contest, competed for credit.

Landrieu, Cassidy jockey to claim victory on flood insurance as Senate race heats up

Early on, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu led the charge to delay dramatic increases in the premiums paid by homeowners covered under the federal flood insurance program. While Landrieu, a lead sponsor of the proposal, held the microphone at one news conference after another on the issue, Rep. Bill Cassidy, the leading Republican running for her seat, stood quietly to the side at one of those conferences and listened. That changed late last week, Gannett Louisiana reports, when Cassidy took the microphone at a news conference to celebrate a vote approving the House version of the flood insurance measure—a version he helped craft. With a bill possibly just days from final enactment—the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on the House bill this week—Landrieu and Cassidy are jockeying to claim credit for its success during one of the most competitive Senate races in the country. "It might have a positive effect on both candidates by raising their favorables," says...

Oil spill, temporary river shutdown highlight risk of U.S. oil boom

The Louisiana barge crash and subsequent oil spill on Saturday that temporarily shut down a stretch of the Mississippi River as far north as Baton Rouge through Monday afternoon highlights the transportation risks of the U.S. energy boom, according to some sources cited in a Bloomberg report. "We're facing the imminent risk of a barge disaster or a rail disaster" as more oil is shipped to the Gulf of Mexico for refining, says Jonathan Henderson, a spokesman for the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network. A surge in U.S. oil production, reflecting in part advances in drilling techniques, has unlocked millions of barrels of oil from geologic formations such as North Dakota's Bakken shale, reducing U.S. reliance on imports. It has also ignited a debate over how to safely get the oil to refineries after a series of rail accidents involving oil tank cars, including a July derailment that killed 47 in a Quebec city. Of course, there are many in the oil and gas industry who maintain the...

Jindal asks Congress to stop flood insurance hikes

After months of staying largely silent on the issue, Gov. Bobby Jindal is urging congressional leaders to stop higher flood insurance premiums from hitting homeowners and businesses. The Associated Press reports Jindal sent a letter late Tuesday to the Republican and Democratic leaders of both the U.S. House and Senate, asking them to support an immediate delay in the increases set in motion by a 2012 revamp of the federal flood insurance program. The Republican governor described the insurance rate hikes that were tied to the program overhaul as "irrational, not actuarial." It was Jindal's first public and direct intervention to seek relief from the steep rate increases. Other state officials and business leaders have warned for months that soaring premiums could severely damage local economies. About 480,000 Louisiana homes and businesses have federal flood insurance.

Lawyers chided for contacting jurors in BP spill trial

A federal judge today ordered lawyers for a former BP engineer to refrain from any further contact with jurors who convicted the engineer of trying to obstruct a federal probe of the company's 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Kurt Mix's attorneys have said they interviewed some jurors after the Dec. 18 verdict and found evidence of juror misconduct that warrants a new trial. In today's order, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. said he is concerned about the "appropriateness" of lawyers interviewing jurors without his permission. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has "expressed general hostility toward the practice of post-trial juror interviews," the judge noted. Duval instructed Mix's attorneys and Justice Department prosecutors to submit written arguments by Jan. 24 on whether the defense lawyers' contact with jurors should affect their motion for a new trial. Duval is set to hear arguments Feb. 26 on the motion for a new trial. Mix, 52, of Katy,...

$1.5 billion in storm recovery aid remains unspent in Louisiana

Louisiana has yet to spend $1.5 billion in federal disaster recovery aid provided by Congress after hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike ravaged the state in 2005 and 2008. The flexible block grant rebuilding and strengthening money remains set aside for infrastructure repairs, home rebuilding, school reconstruction and business assistance. The Associated Press reports nearly all of it is tied to specific projects, as efforts to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles of recovery stretch over years. Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration has defended the spending pace. Pat Forbes, Jindal's director for disaster recovery work, says his office is constantly reviewing unmet recovery needs to determine where money can be redirected. The amount of unspent cash represents about 10% of the $14.5 billion in Community Development Block Grant aid that Louisiana received from Congress after the storms.

Targets in BP settlement inquiry assail findings

Nearly six months after a federal judge appointed former FBI director Louis Freeh to investigate alleged misconduct inside the settlement program for compensating victims of BP's 2010 Gulf oil spill, the targets of his inquiry are questioning his independence and trying to rebut his findings. The Associated Press reports Lionel "Tiger" Sutton III, a lawyer whose resignation from the staff of claims administrator Patrick Juneau spawned the investigation, urged U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier last week to throw out a scathing report that Freeh issued in September. The report concluded that top members of Juneau's staff, including Sutton, engaged in conduct that was improper, unethical and possibly criminal. Sutton's lawyer, Michael Walsh, argued in a Dec. 18 court filing that Freeh lacks evidence that his client broke any laws or had a conflict of interest during his work on the settlement. Freeh's report also accused two private attorneys, Glen Lerner and Jon Andry, of using Sutton's...

BP takes latest arguments over spill payments to appeals court

BP is again asking a New Orleans appeals court to intervene after a federal judge denied its latest attempt to block some payments in its multibillion-dollar oil spill settlement. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier tossed the British oil giant's argument that settlement claimants must show that the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster actually caused profit or revenue losses, and BP promised to take the matter to a higher court. Barbier said BP could not take a position that contradicted its earlier stance in the settlement. He cited court documents in which BP said businesses' profit losses can be "presumed to be caused by the spill" after claimants meet certain criteria, such as geographic proximity to the spill. The Associated Press reports BP filed a notice of appeal today. In court documents, BP claimed last month it paid more than $540 million to claimants who could not have been harmed by the spill. All told, the company has paid out $3.8 billion to claimants since the...

Ex-BP engineer convicted on one obstruction charge, acquitted on second

A former BP drilling engineer was convicted today of deleting text messages from his cellphone to obstruct a federal investigation of the company's massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Kurt Mix was found guilty on one charge and acquitted of a second charge. A federal jury deliberated for more than nine hours over three days before reaching the verdict on his case. The count of obstruction of justice carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Mix will be released on his present bond, and sentencing is scheduled for March 26. The Associated Press reports Mix hugged his friends and family members in the courtroom before leaving the courthouse hurriedly. "I'm only going to speak through counsel," he told one reporter trying to ask him a question. Trailing behind her brother in the courthouse lobby, Bridget Mix called the verdict "just unbelievable." "You can't wrap your head around any of it," she said. Prosecutors argued that the 52-year-old engineer...

Feds cite Houston firm, two La. contractors in fatal 2012 Gulf blast

The federal government slapped Houston-based Black Elk Energy and three contractors with 41 citations Wednesday, alleging they failed to ensure safe welding on a Gulf production platform where an explosion killed three workers last year. The Houston Chronicle reports the agency that led a federal investigation into the explosion says the citations, called "incidents of non-compliance," could lead to civil penalties for Black Elk and the following contractors: Compass Engineering & Consultants of Lafayette; Grand Isle Shipyard of Galliano, La.; and Wood Group PSN of Aberdeen, Scotland. The company and its contractors can appeal the charges within 60 days. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement says in its list of citations that the contractors on the platform did not render flammable hydrocarbons in the piping and nearby tanks inert before welders began working and did not follow an approved welding plan. The agency detailed findings of its probe into the incident...

By Providence

In September, Baton Rouge-based Providence, an engineering and environmental firm, announced major developments involving two of its air quality technologies. While one project remains in the design stage, the other is being rolled out internationally.

BP fights feds' Gulf oil spill estimate in court

Attorneys for BP and the Justice Department squared off in federal court today over how much oil ended up in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, a pivotal dispute in the trial over the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Fuelfix.com reports that fines for the British oil giant could balloon to $18 billion if U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier agrees with Justice Department calculations on the amount of oil that flowed into the Gulf after the April 20, 2010, disaster on the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 people. Four experts, using different methodologies and data BP provided, estimated that 5 million barrels of oil pushed out of the blown-out Macondo well and 4.2 million barrels reached the ocean, said Steve O'Rourke, a Justice Department attorney, in opening statements. The government and BP have agreed that various containment devices captured about 800,000 barrels of crude before it reached the ocean. Government experts based their calculation on estimates that crude spewed from the...

BP renews bid to suspend settlement payments

British oil giant BP today renewed its request for a federal judge to temporarily suspend settlement payments to Gulf Coast residents and businesses, citing a scathing report on alleged misconduct within the court-supervised program. The Associated Press reports that BP attorneys say in a court filing today that a report issued earlier this month by former FBI Director Louis Freeh shows the settlement program is plagued by problems that need to be fixed. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier already has rejected two previous requests by BP to suspend settlement payments, but both rulings preceded Freeh's Sept. 6 report. Freeh concluded that top members of claims administrator Patrick Juneau's staff engaged in conduct that was improper, unethical and possibly criminal, but said he didn't see a need to shut down settlement payments. BP lawyers questioned whether Barbier would have authorized Juneau to begin processing and paying claims more than a year ago had he known the settlement...

Halliburton to plead guilty today to criminal charge in Gulf oil spill case

Judgment day has arrived for oil field services firm Halliburton. Nearly three and a half years after a deadly rig explosion and massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the company that supplied the cement for the well that blew out will plead guilty today to a misdemeanor criminal charge in the case, The Houston Chronicle reports. Attorney Marc Mukasey and a corporate officer for Halliburton have been authorized to enter the plea on the company's behalf, according to a board resolution filed with the federal court in New Orleans. U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo will decide whether to accept Halliburton's guilty plea to destroying evidence after the disaster and the punishment it negotiated with the Justice Department—a $200,000 fine and three years' probation. Separately, the company made a voluntary contribution of $55 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that was not part of the plea deal accepted by Milazzo. Approval of the guilty plea would...

BP seeks cuts in settlement program's budget

BP has urged a federal judge to reject a $111 million budget request by the court-supervised administrator of the company's multibillion-dollar settlement with Gulf Coast businesses and residents. In a court filing Wednesday, The Associated Press reports BP attorneys say claims administrator Patrick Juneau refused to cut his office's fourth-quarter budget request by at least $25.5 million after the company complained that it was excessive. Last month, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ordered the London-based oil giant to pay more than $130 million for Juneau's third-quarter budget despite the company's objections. BP say Juneau's latest budget proposal isn't reasonable either, and shouldn't be approved. The company claims Juneau's office has failed to adequately manage its outside vendors' inflated expenses.

Battle over drainage decision continues

Did Ascension and Iberville parishes violate federal law when they opened the floodgate between Bayou Manchac and Alligator Bayou before getting permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers? That's the question Alligator Bayou Swamp Tours owner Frank Bonifay wants the First Circuit Court of Appeal to answer. Attorneys for Bonifay and the two parishes have filed briefs in the case challenging the May 2009 decision to open the floodgate, which allowed Alligator Bayou to drain into Bayou Manchac, forcing Bonifay to close his 17-year-old ecotourism business. In a February ruling granting summary judgment in Bonifay's lawsuit challenging the move, Ascension Parish District Judge Thomas Kliebert Jr. acknowledged the "tragic" impact to Alligator Bayou Swamp Tours, but concluded the decision to open the floodgate was directly related to drainage and flood prevention and control. In their appeal, Bonifay's attorneys argue that Iberville and Ascension parishes violated federal law when...

Appeals court withdraws insurance ruling that favored BP in Gulf spill case

A federal appeals court today withdrew a previous decision allowing British oil giant BP to tap insurance policies held by Swiss drilling contractor Transocean to help cover damages from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Fuelfix.com reports the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans says it needs the Texas Supreme Court to address several questions about Texas insurance law before it can render a final decision. BP says in a statement that it believes "the 5th Circuit got it right in its previous unanimous opinion and think that result will be confirmed." A Transocean spokesman declined to comment. On March 1, the court had ruled in BP's favor, reversing a lower court ruling that held BP was not entitled to coverage under at least $750 million in policies held by Transocean in connection with its ownership of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. BP has argued that it was considered an additional insured party under Transocean's policies based on their Gulf drilling...

Kinder Morgan investigating La. plant fire

Initial reports are mixed on what exactly occurred at the Kinder Morgan Energy Partners terminal in Harvey, but company officials say a fire that left one man injured today has been extinguished. The Associated Press reports a trucker's leg was slightly burned in an explosion at the industrial site near New Orleans, citing the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office as its source. However, Kinder Morgan spokeswoman Emily Mir tells Reuters that there was no explosion. "That's not accurate. There has been a fire that has been extinguished," Mir is quoted as saying. The Harvey Volunteer Fire Department quickly put out the fire this morning and the man was being treated at West Jefferson General Hospital, Col. John Fortunato, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, tells The AP. He says the truck's other driver, a woman, was not hurt. The truck was in an ethanol loading area at the Kinder Morgan Energy Partners' terminal when the fire started about 11:15 a.m., company spokesman Richard Wheatley...

Flood protection board may put parts of suit against oil, gas companies on hold

The New Orleans-area levee board pursuing a potentially historic lawsuit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies says it will consider pausing major aspects of its suit for at least 45 days. In return, says John Barry, vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, the authority wants to see a "good faith effort" from state officials, primarily Garret Graves, chairman of the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and Gov. Bobby Jindal's point man on coastal issues, to get the industry to pay for its share of Louisiana's coastal land loss. Barry admittedly was vague when discussing the proposal with the Baton Rouge Press Club today. "There is every detail to work out," he says, adding the levee board's attorneys—who are working on a contingent-fee basis—would be willing to waive their contract and have their fees determined in arbitration. Jindal has demanded the levee board drop the suit, saying it has overstepped its authority,...

Remaining Lawtell derailment evacuees headed home

Authorities opened U.S. Highway 190 in St. Landry Parish in both directions earlier today and began escorting residents and business owners back into an area that was evacuated after a weekend train derailment. State police said two eastbound lanes of U.S. 190 were open, as well as one westbound lane. Twenty-six cars derailed Sunday near Lawtell, 60 miles west of Baton Rouge. Fourteen had materials considered hazardous, including two with highly toxic vinyl chloride. Those two have been unloaded and removed from the site. Officials still had more than a dozen cars to move as of early today. And, though the highway was open in both directions, state police spokesman Lt. Doug Cain tells The Associated Press that travelers were asked to avoid the area if possible. Earlier this week, about 100 people were allowed back in their homes after authorities lifted the evacuation order for residents living farther than a quarter-mile from the crash site. The cause of the accident remains under...

BP cites new fraud allegations in spill settlement

BP says it has uncovered new allegations of fraud and conflicts of interest inside the settlement program that has awarded billions of dollars to Gulf Coast businesses and residents for damage from the company's 2010 oil spill. BP attorneys outlined the allegations Monday in a court filing, which asks a federal judge to temporarily suspend settlement payments while former FBI Director Louis Freeh leads an independent investigation of the court-supervised settlement program. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier rejected the same request last month, but BP said it only recently learned of new evidence of "more widespread and potentially systemic improprieties" in the program. Specifically, BP says at least two lawyers who have ruled on appeals of disputed settlement awards were partners at law firms that have represented claimants and filed claims of their own for the firms to be compensated. The settlement program, administered by Lafayette-based attorney Patrick Juneau, suspended that...

Wet to dry

After months of relief, dry conditions are returning to Louisiana at a time when rain is most critical for this fall's harvests.

Cleanup underway at derailment site in Louisiana

About 100 homes remained evacuated this morning as officials worked to clean up the site of a 26-car train derailment near the small community of Lawtell, about 60 miles west of Baton Rouge. The Union Pacific train went off the tracks Sunday around 3:30 p.m. Company spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza says one of the railcars was leaking sodium hydroxide, which can cause injuries or even death if it is inhaled or touches the skin. Another was leaking lube oil. State police say the leaks are contained, The Associated Press reports. Gov. Bobby Jindal flew into St. Landry Parish on Sunday night to inspect the scene. "Anytime you have chemicals leaking into the environment, that's a serious issue," Jindal said. "Nobody knows the extent of the damage. We'll get that in the next 24 hours." Crews were working to clear U.S. Highway 190 this morning, which runs parallel to the railway and was blocked by the accident. The railroad company doesn't know what caused the derailment. Espinoza says the...

Blowout off La. coast could tip regulator focus to shallow-water

Last week's blowout on a natural gas rig off the Louisiana coast could shift regulators' focus to shallow-water drilling and make an overhaul of safety equipment regulations more likely. Since the BP disaster in 2010, much of regulators' focus has been on drilling in Gulf water thousands of feet deep, The Associated Press reports. That's where the biggest oil companies are chasing large new fields and the risks seemed greatest in the wake of the spill. But inshore drilling continues as well, with some of the focus shifting to oil instead of natural gas as the price for gas has fallen because of onshore finds, including in shale formations. James Watson, director of the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said he plans to meet with executives from shallow-water drilling companies to discuss safety and risk reduction. "This vent and other recent...

Most of Louisiana abnormally dry or experiencing drought

After months of relief, dry conditions are returning to Louisiana at a time when rain is most critical for the fall harvests. Three months ago, just 7% of Louisiana was considered abnormally dry or in drought. But in the most recent drought analysis, 65% of the state is either abnormally dry or under moderate drought. For cotton, soybeans, sugarcane and grain sorghum crops, plenty of rain will be critical over the next few weeks, says Kurt Guidry, a professor of farm management at LSU's AgCenter. "We're still far enough away from harvest for those that they are still going to need some rain or some moisture," he says. "Most of those don't have enough now to sustain them through the growing season. They need moisture over the next three to four weeks to finalize their growth period." Corn crops, however, should be close enough to harvest that August rains won't have much of an impact, he says. "Corn is … probably at the point where moisture is not that critical for its yield...

BP exec says Gulf spill settlement unlikely

BP CEO Bob Dudley says it's unlikely Europe's second-biggest oil company will reach a settlement with the U.S. over its Gulf disaster as provisions set aside to pay for the spill are rising, Bloomberg reports. "It's highly unlikely we are now going to enter into detailed settlement discussions," Dudley told reporters in London today. "We're digging in for the long term." BP shares fell the most since 2011 on Dudley's remarks and after second-quarter profit was reported to have dropped more than analysts expected. The company lost a bid this month to halt payments to spill victims that it says are being unjustly awarded and today raised its estimate for the accident's total cost to $42.4 billion. The final bill is still uncertain three years after the blowout at the Macondo well. "The loss claims have really been misinterpreted from the agreement that we signed in good faith," Dudley said in a Bloomberg Television interview. "We're going to fight this." BP says it has been...