Jury awards $750K in damages from state to environmental whistleblower

Jury awards $750K to environmental whistle blower

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Years ago, a state contractor exposed alleged corruption, then watched one business door after another suddenly close. A court ruling Monday said he was wronged.

It took five years to build a case, but a jury said Dan Collins is owed more than half a million dollars in damages he said were inflicted when he blew the whistle on a state-funded project that he believed violated laws.

It was in 2005 that the Department of Natural Resources dredged Bayou Pastillion in Iberia Parish as a part of the Atchafalaya Basin Project. The goal was to improve water quality for fishermen by removing sediment build up at the mouth of the bayou.

However, a chance encounter at a trade show by one of the contractors with the project led Collins to believe there was something more sinister happening just below the surface.

"I got online, checked the state's mineral activity and surprise, almost shocked, that at the end of the dredge there had been six wells that had been drilled starting in 2005 to that point in time in '07," said Collins.

Collins was the landman on the original project. With 12 years of experiences working with the state, it was up to his firm to check the surrounding land titles and other information before the project began.

After learning about the gas wells, Collins dug deeper. He said the project also had an unusual boundary agreement that essentially gave away state land and mineral rights and restricted public access.

He believes that far from improving water quality, neighboring landowners were allegedly using connections to the project to establish lucrative oil and gas activity made possible by the taxpayer-funded dredging. It's a scenario Collins said may have violated state and environmental laws.

"It was just unheard of. Once I put this together and presented it to my superiors, to Secretary Angelle, to the Attorney General's Office, to Mr. Teepell who brought it directly to Governor Jindal," said Collins. "It was never investigated. No one ever conducted a formal investigation at all."

When Collins became more vocal about his allegations, joined at times by fishermen worried about environmental damage caused by the extensive dredging, he said he suddenly began losing state contracts.

In 2010, Collins sued the Department of Natural Resources. After a week-long trial, a jury awarded him $250,000 in damages.

According to the environmental whistleblower statute, Collins is eligible for triple the award as treble damages plus attorney's fees and costs, bringing the total award to more than $750,000.

"It was an emotional verdict. It was clearly a great victory for my client. My hope and desire is that it does send a message to state government that retaliation against environmental whistle blowers are not to be tolerated," said Crystal Bounds, Collins' attorney.

A spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources said they plan to appeal the jury's decision and maintains that no laws were violated.

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