A bill that would allow companies to disclose their problems at industrial facilities in exchange for confidentiality and reduced fines took a step closer toward becoming law Thursday, despite opposition from several environmental groups. The bill advanced out of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee without opposition.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré was among those who voiced disapproval of HB72 by Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan (R-Lafayette) at Thursday’s committee meeting. Honoré said that the confidentiality aspect of the bill was likely to make it more difficult for first responders, local elected officials and residents who live near facilities to know about pollution that could threaten their health. “I’m just asking you to look at this,” he said. “It relies too much on the trust of people we don’t know and who don’t live there.”
Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Chuck Carr Brown said the bill would not stop the department from conducting regular inspections at industrial facilities. “It gives us more information, and it actually improves environmental quality,” he said. While the bill would create a voluntary environmental self-audit program, the specifics of the program — such as how long the self audits would be kept confidential — would later be established by the Department of Environmental Quality. Once the department establishes the specifics, those regulations would need to be approved by the Louisiana Legislature, Brown said.
Environmental attorney Bill Goodell called the bill “bad policy” that creates a loophole in the form of reductions or eliminations of civil penalties for violations. “What makes industry do the right thing is to have the threat of enforcement looming over their head,” he said. Representatives from the Louisiana Budget Project, Louisiana Press Association, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Progress, Together Louisiana and a local chapter of the Sierra Club opposed the bill.
Before the bill was approved, Edgar Cage with Together Louisiana asked lawmakers to consider the words “transparency and accountability.” The idea that petrochemical companies should have reduced civil penalties for coming back into compliance with the law does not serve residents who live nearby and breathe in air pollution, Cage said. “A self-audit is self serving,” he said.
The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry has sought legislation that would create a program to allow industrial facilities to self-audit their own environmental compliance as far back as 1997, when then Sen. Stephen Windhorst introduced HB967. LABI said that year it would stop pursuing the legislation after the Environmental Protection Agency threatened to take away the state’s authority to enforce air and water violations if the bill passed, according to a 1997 article by The Advocate. A self auditing bill similar to the one approved by the committee Thursday failed by a narrow margin in the Louisiana House of Representatives in 2019.
In support of the bill Thursday were representatives from Louisiana Chemical Association, Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, Atmos Energy, Entergy and Phillips 66.