Bill to allow environmental self-audits by industries passes House

Records would remain hidden from public for up to two years

By: - May 15, 2021 10:00 am
Louisiana Capitol Building

The Louisiana Legislature ended its regular session Thursday. (Photo by Julie O’Donoghue)

The Louisiana House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed an amended version of a bill that would allow industrial facilities to conduct environmental self-audits for certain incidents that don’t normally require notifying state or federal environmental authorities and would make some of those self-audit records secret for up to two years.

House Bill 72, sponsored by Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan (R-Lafayette) passed in a 87-7 vote and moves to the Senate for consideration.

The legislation has undergone some key changes since it was first introduced. When Coussan presented his bill to the House Governmental Affairs Committee May 6, he initially proposed allowing the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to determine the types of incidents that would qualify under the self-audit programs and to determine how long the records would be kept secret.

However, several lawmakers voiced concern over those issues, prompting the committee to pass an amendment that limits the secrecy period to up to two years.

Since that committee meeting, Coussan drafted his own additional amendment to help further assuage some of those concerns. That latest amendment would codify in statute the types of incidents that would not qualify for environmental self-audits, rather than leaving it up to DEQ to determine through its own rule-making authority.

Incidents that would not qualify for environmental self-audits, according to the amended bill, include:

  1. “Violations that result in serious actual harm to the environment.”
  2. “Violations that may present an imminent or substantial endangerment to public health or the environment.”
  3. “Violations discovered by the department prior to the written disclosure of the violation to the department.”
  4. “Violations detected through monitoring, sampling, or auditing procedures that are required by statute, regulation, permit, judicial or administrative order, or consent agreement.”

As he did in the May 6 committee meeting, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Pineville) expressed some concern about the bill, particularly in regards to environmental disasters such as the General Electric/Dresser Industries groundwater contamination, which occurred in his district in 2011 and 2012. Even though DEQ knew about the contamination for  years, residents were kept in the dark about the accident until 2020. 

“Your bill wouldn’t help DEQ make the public aware of issues any quicker,” Johnson said. “This bill is not going to do anything to require DEQ to do their job?”

Coussan said it would not and explained that his bill would provide DEQ with information that they wouldn’t normally have and encourages industries to be good stewards of the environment.

Johnson voted for the bill.

Rep. Malinda White (D-Bogalusa) voiced her support, saying her previous career in quality control management gives her a firm understanding of the legislation.

“When we don’t put enough money to DEQ to stop it, this is another way of being able to know what’s going on in industry and in their business,” White said. “I know people seem to be nervous about it or whatever, but companies are doing this if they’re good companies, and we can weed out the bad ones with these kinds of self-audits.”

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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