Riegel: The final chapter in landman’s environmental crusade?


Ten years ago, Baton Rouge landman Dan Collins did a risky and politically unpopular thing, when he filed an environmental whistleblower lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.

Collins’ suit alleged that his work with the state as a landman in the mid-2000s dried up after he blew the whistle on a state-run dredging project in an area of the Atchafalaya Basin known as Bayou Postillion. The project had been billed as an environmental enhancement project to improve Postillion’s stagnating water. Collins uncovered evidence suggesting it was actually done to facilitate oil and gas drilling on water bottoms owned by several politically connected families.

After years of delays and legal maneuverings by some of the best attorneys in the Acadiana area, the case went to trial in late 2015. A jury found in Collins’ favor, awarding him $750,000 in damages.

But the state appealed the verdict, and earlier this year the First Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the trial court decision and threw out the judgement—not on the merits of the alleged environmental violations, but because the court said Collins didn’t have standing to file a whistleblower suit.

Recently, the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to take up the matter, effectively ending for good one of the more compelling and, arguably, egregious cases of environmental wrongdoing in years.

But then, in Louisiana, environmental violations don’t generate much interest—except from the people who are trying to defend them.

Collins has learned this the hard way during the years he has been battling the state.

“Once again, it is disappointing to watch our state leaders and judiciary turn a blind eye to corruption in Louisiana.”

—Dan Collins, Baton Rouge landman who filed a whistleblower lawsuit against DNR

“Once again, it is disappointing to watch our state leaders and judiciary turn a blind eye to corruption in Louisiana,” he says.

Collins’ story is long and complex, which is perhaps why it has never captured the attention of the public. But the details are worth recalling because the apparent violations were so blatant. Among them:

  • Shortly after the Postillion dredging project was completed in 2005, seven natural gas wells were drilled in the exact location where the bayou had been deepened.
  • The bayou was dredged to the exact specification needed to accommodate commercial barge traffic, far more than would have been needed for a water quality enhancement project.
  • The landowners on whose properties the wells were located included members of the prominent Kyle-Peterman family, and an attorney named Newman Trowbridge Jr., since deceased, who had close personal and political ties to former Gov. Mike Foster.
  • As far back as 2002 there had been documented discussions at the state level about dredging Bayou Postillion to accommodate barges for energy production, though it would be three years before anything happened.
  • When the state cut its deal with the landowners to acquire the rights to dredge the bayou, it gave up all but 25 feet of access in the middle of the bayou, essentially turning over the rest of the canal and its lucrative water bottoms to the private landowners. The attorney the state hired to negotiate the deal was Trowbridge, himself one of the landowners.

“It reads like a John Grisham novel, sprinkled with various political characters,” Collins says.

Collins first began putting the pieces of the intriguing puzzle together in 2007, two years after the dredging was completed. He brought the matter to his superiors at DNR, including then-
Secretary Scott Angelle, in 2008. After that, the state stopped awarding him contracts, even though he continued bidding on them.

Collins says it was retribution. In court documents, the state said it was because Collins, who’d worked for the state for years, was less qualified than other bidders. Whatever the reason, a jury unanimously ruled in Collins’ favor during his four-day trial, though that verdict is now meaningless.

Collins is relentless and vows to continue his fight. But legally his options are effectively ended. He’s hoping the national media—or maybe even Hollywood—will pick up his story.

There are many questions raised by the whole affair. One of the most obvious questions surrounds the First Circuit’s May ruling that Collins didn’t have standing to file a whistleblower suit.

No doubt, one could make that argument legally—except that in 2013, when the state was trying to get the case dismissed, it made that argument in a motion challenging Collins’ standing. The dispute went all the way to First Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in Collins’ favor, clearing the way for the 2015 trial. What made the appellate court change its mind in just a few years?

More curious and troubling is why, after so many years, no state or federal agency has investigated the alleged violations of environmental law Collins uncovered. Whether he lost work out of retribution or not, the facts surrounding the drilling are worth looking into. But neither the FBI, the DEQ, the DNR, the Louisiana Inspector General nor the Attorney General have seen fit to take up the matter.

Collins is relentless and vows to continue his fight. But legally his options are effectively ended. He’s hoping the national media—or maybe even Hollywood—will pick up his story.

But this drama isn’t simply about a questionable drilling project and a lone crusader’s fight for justice. It’s about a state that thumbs its nose at violations of environmental law and plays by rules that appear to favor the politically connected at the expense of everyone else.

“The guilty remain untouched,” Collins says. “Is this the end of the story? No, just another chapter, one of which the rest of the country should be aware.” 

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