Louisiana Legislature may erase ethics charges against groundwater regulators

Bill would allow industrial users to keep their employees on water regulation boards

By: - May 19, 2021 4:32 pm
Legislature names 4 to Louisiana Ethics Board

The Louisiana Capitol Building, April 8, 2021. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator).

The Louisiana Legislature is close to approving a bill that would allow employees of industrial companies to sit on the groundwater district commissions that oversee the drinking water those companies use for commercial operations. The legislation would also retroactively void ethics violations five Baton Rouge-area groundwater district commissioners face over conflicts of interest.

The Senate has already approved Senate Bill 203, and it got out of the House Committee on House and Governmental Affairs without a single objection Wednesday. The House will next take up the proposal that has faced little opposition from lawmakers so far. 

The legislation’s sponsor, Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that builds the state’s budget and one of the most powerful members of the Louisiana Legislature. 

White drafted the bill in response to the Louisiana Board of Ethics charging five members of the Capital Area Groundwater Commission — which manages the groundwater in the Baton Rouge region — with ethics violations. The five members are employees of ExxonMobil, Georgia-Pacific, Entergy and the Baton Rouge Water Company, all of which extract water from the Southern Hills Aquifer System to help with their industrial operations. 

“The industries we are talking about are the biggest taxpayers in this parish,” said White, arguing in favor of keeping the industry employees on the board.

The state ethics board believes the commissioners’ jobs might present a conflict of interest that runs afoul of state ethics laws. The issue is currently under investigation and is scheduled to go before an administrative judge for deliberation some time after September. If White’s bill is approved, that process would be halted and the charges voided. The bill, if it becomes law, will also solidify that industrial companies can appoint their own employees to groundwater district commissions around the state — not just the one in the Baton Rouge region. 

The House committee members overwhelmingly agreed with White Wednesday. Rep. Daryl Deshotel, R-Marksville, said his local groundwater district commission was having a difficult time even finding people to serve on it, regardless of their profession. Deshotel is running legislation to allow his commission to be reduced from nine to five members because it has so many empty seats.

“[The commissioners] are doing a public service. It’s hard to tell them to give up their livelihood to do this,” Deshotel said.

Employees of the major companies that extract Baton Rouge groundwater have sat on the local groundwater district commission for decades with no complaint, White said. State law gives industrial users three appointments to the 18-member Capitol Area Groundwater Commission. The private Baton Rouge Water Company also gets appointments to the board. White doesn’t see a problem with people who are employed by the industry or the private water company holding those seats. 

The issue of who sits on the Capital Area Groundwater Commission has come up recently because the commission has been receiving more scrutiny from environmental groups and other advocates in recent years.

The commission has recently changed several ways it operates in response to public pressure. It is now abiding by public meetings laws, which wasn’t the case previously, said Kathy Wascom, a board member for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. The Legislature also put laws into place in recent years that added more Baton Rouge members to the commission and required members to have more expertise in subject matters like engineering, Wascom said.

The underlying issue is that environmental advocates and community groups are alarmed that saltwater is intruding on the Baton Rouge-area aquifer that supplies much of the drinking water in the region. Environmental advocates and community groups suspect that the saltwater has become an issue because industrial companies are extracting too much water from the aquifer for commercial purposes. 

They would prefer local industrial users take water from the Mississippi River, but that proposition would be much more expensive for the industries. It’s hard for the environmental advocates and community groups to get a grasp on how much aquifer water is going toward industrial use because the industrial companies have to self-report how much aquifer extraction is occurring, according to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and Together Baton Rouge.

The advocates say the commission is reluctant to impose more restrictions — or at least ask questions — of the industrial companies using the aquifer because some of the commissioners work for those companies. 

“Are you going to tell your company that they are going to have to spend money to put in a facility to use river water [instead of the aquifer]?” Wascam asked rhetorically. “You don’t want to ask [commissioners] to put their jobs on the line when they are making these decisions.”

“Industry has the ability to appoint people to represent them whose salaries don’t depend and whose jobs don’t depend on those positions,” she said. 

Legislators pushed back on that argument. They said they don’t believe that three employees from industrial companies and two people from the Baton Rouge Water Company — or five members total — could have so much power over an 18-person commission. Some lawmakers said it also made sense for employees of industrial users to sit on the committee because they may have a skill set that’s relevant to the aquifer.

“I don’t know who would have expertise to do this for industry if not an employee of those industries,” said Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.