Nov. 1, 2016 11:26 AM
Dean Wilson of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper leads landman Dan Collins on a recent tour of Bayou Postillion.
Photo by Robin May

Of the many troubling facts to come out of Dan Collins’ successful whistleblower lawsuit against the state Department of Natural Resources, Collins declared the altering of state maps used in the tract nomination process in the state mineral lease along Bayou Postillion as the most disturbing. To the longtime landman, the altered maps called into question the integrity of the state’s mineral lease program.

Collins was hired by the Atchafalaya Basin Program in 2004 to perform title work on the Bayou Postillion water quality project on the eastern side of the Basin.

Around the time that the Atchafalaya Basin Project approved the Bayou Postillion water quality project, OMR nominated a tract for a mineral lease along Bayou Postillion. Collins only discovered this connection years later. When he brought this to the attention of officials at DNR, the state agency that oversees the Atchafalaya Basin Project, Collins claimed (and a jury agreed) that he was punished for blowing the whistle on the project.

The process of bringing leases on state-owned lands and water bottoms is called “nominating a tract for lease.” It begins with the Office of Mineral Resources contracting with a surveyor to define the tract.

Years later, after learning of the mineral lease, Collins discovered that the Bayou Postillion water quality project had been hijacked into an oil and gas access project that dredged Bayou Postillion with state funds to provide drilling barges access to remote areas of the tract.

Collins was stunned to discover that the state’s tract nomination process had been expropriated so as to hide the connection between the water quality project and the mineral lease.

The deception involved renaming Bayou Postillion in the nominating tract map and misidentifying a pipeline as a parish line. Collins discovered that the original plat of the tract accurately depicted the area, and accurately identified Bayou Postillion. However, when the nominating map prepared by OMR was published, Bayou Postillion had been renamed Bayou Gravenburg, and a pipeline had been identified as the Iberia Parish line. In his court case, Collins showed that the tract identified in the nominating tract map was 20 miles west of the actual tract being nominated.

Collins believes the altered maps might have thrown off potential lease competitors. The alterations might also have concealed from environmentalists and others who would have immediately grasped the connection between the water quality project and the oil and gas lease.

Collins is confident that the altering of the tract map took place inside OMR, which paid for the accurate tract survey and produced the misleading nominating tract information for the Mineral and Energy Board.

DNR Assistant Secretary David Boulet was asked about the Collins case and the evidence of nominating map altering during his interview with The IND. Boulet says he could not comment on the case because an appeal by the state is pending. “I can’t really speak to that,” Boulet says. “It’s under litigation, fact-finding wise, it would be premature. I know of it.”

Pressed on Collins’ point that altering nominating maps calls into question the integrity of the state mineral lease bid process, Boulet defends his office.

“I’m curious, like anybody, if there was some wrongdoing.

But, what I see is a very rigorous process within OMR, and nothing but a bunch of good professionals — petroleum land people, and land specialists,” Boulet says, then adds: “But, you know, we close at 5 o’clock and if somebody’s going to come in and, you know, doctor something for their own benefit — I can’t speak to that.”

Collins’ attorney, Crystal Bounds, says DNR officials who were questioned in trial proceedings tried to pass off the Bayou Postillion map alteration as an honest mistake.

In 2015, Collins discovered a second mineral nominating tract map had been altered in connection with a second Atchafalaya Basin Project water quality project, this one on Bayou Fourche. This project was authorized in 2014, and the tract for the state mineral lease for that area was published shortly thereafter. As in the Bayou Postillion project, the nominating map for the mineral lease had been altered.

Karen LeBlanc, director of performance audits for the Louisiana legislative auditor, tells The IND that her office has notified the Atchafalaya Basin Program that the legislative auditor’s office will be conducting an audit of its operations based on allegations that have been made regarding the program. She would not mention Dan Collins by name. Collins, however, tells The IND that he has met with members of the legislative auditor’s staff about what he’s found. — Mike Stagg