Harold Schoeffler is not a lawyer but he has used the rule of law to help save Louisiana from itself even as governors and lawmakers sought to blindly sell off or lease the state’s natural resources and beauty to the lowest bidders.
In the early 1980s, after unsuccessful fights with state agencies to stop the destruction of Louisiana’s barrier islands by allowing dredgers to dig up the shells and use them for everything from driveways to roadway foundations, Schoeffler sued the state to stop the dredging. While it was an environmental fight, Schoeffler and his attorneys prevailed by arguing that the dredging contracts violated the state’s own contract laws. The contracts were for 25 years and the amount paid the state was up to shell dredgers to decide through self-reporting.
It was a nearly decade-long fight, but Schoeffler succeeded in stop dredging not only along the coast but in Lake Pontchartrain, as well. With the state now engaged in a life or death struggle to preserve our disappearing coast, imagine how much better shape we might have found ourselves in today had the state not short-sightedly fought to defend the shell dredging industry rather than look at the total cost of those operations. How much much would the price tag on the Coastal Master Plan be if we still had those barrier islands?
In his legal fights over shell dredging and other environmental insults that the State of Louisiana was all to happy to allow (and even promote), Schoeffler and his attorneys, and those involved in such landmark litigation as Save Ourselves vs Louisiana Environmental Control Commission, helped define the power and protections included in Article 9, Section 1, of the 1974 Louisiana Constitution:
The natural resources of the state, including air and water, and the healthful, scenic, historic, and esthetic quality of the environment shall be protected, conserved, and replenished insofar as possible and consistent with the health, safety, and welfare of the people. The legislature shall enact laws to implement this policy.
Schoeffler grew up on the bayous and in the marshes in and around Lafayette. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area based on countless hours spent in boats and canoes, or hiking in the region. While his environmental activism rankled many in Lafayette’s oil and gas business over the years, his persistence and integrity earned him the respect of friends and foes alike across the state.
After the great floods of August, 2016, Harold’s knowledge of the natural hydrology of the Teche Vermilion Watershed — Acadiana’s bayous, rivers, and swamps — made him, once again, the go-to-guy for those who recognized that the flooding was made worse by changes made in the watershed in some cases decades ago.
As a result, he’s in the thick of ongoing discussions of how re-establishing natural connections between bayous and swamps could help avert or lessen the impact of future deluges like the one in August.
Schoeffler has been a persistent opponent of the proposal to run an interstate highway through Lafayette since the days the idea was first announced in the previous century. As we discuss in the interview, there is an abandoned railroad yard that operated for 80 years in the pathway of the projected road. Schoeffler believes that construction through that site would destabilize the site which, studies have shown, has polluted parts of the Chicot Aquifer that are near the surface in areas near the site.
In our discussion about the coastal lawsuits, Schoeffler said he believes that the state is going to have a difficult time winning its cases in the coastal zone. He acknowledges that the oil and gas industry damaged the coast, but he is not sure how a percentage of the damage can be attributed to the industry. He believes, for instance, that the Intercoastal Canal, a federal project with its basis in the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1909, has had a very significant impact in degrading the coastal marshes because of the way it cut off the natural flow of water in the marshes.
This podcast contains the radio interview only. The podcast only segment, in which Schoeffler and I discussed the I-49 project in greater detail, was lost due to a technical snafu at the radio station.
In that segment, Schoeffler declared that he does not believe that I-49 will ever be built through downtown Lafayette because the direct and indirect costs are too high. He noted that in addition to the environmental cleanup of the railroad yard (which is itself the subject of litigation now), having an elevated roadway extend across the Vermilion River would necessitate relocating the runway at Lafayette Regional Airport back into protected wetlands north and east of the current runway.
It’s a wide-ranging conversation that I think you’ll enjoy.