Gov. John Bel Edwards (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator).
Gov. John Bel Edwards appointed two new members to the 18-person board that regulates groundwater use in the Baton Rouge region, less than three months after rejecting legislation that would have allowed employees from companies who use the groundwater to continue to sit on the commission without penalty.
Alvin Broussard, the public works director and chief building official for the City of Gonzales, is taking the seat that used to be occupied by Dennis McGhee. McGhee, whose term expired in December, is one of five current and former members of the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission facing state ethics charges over their service on the board.
Edwards’ other appointee Patrick J. Engemann replaced Mark Frey, who isn’t facing ethics charges. Engemann and Frey were both nominated by the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, which holds a designated seat on the board.
McGhee ran afoul of the ethics board because he is an employee of the Baton Rouge Water Company, a private entity that supplies drinking water to the Baton Rouge region. State law prohibits employees from sitting on the regulatory bodies that oversee their own companies, according to the ethics board.
The groundwater commission’s main purpose is to oversee the use of the Southern Hills Aquifer, which provides the drinking water for over 600,000 people in the Baton Rouge region. The Baton Rouge Water Company, McGhee’s employer, is one of the biggest users of the aquifer’s resources.
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Several industrial companies also make use of the aquifer’s water to help run their plants. They too, have historically had employees sitting on the groundwater commission.
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Ryan Scardina, who also works for Baton Rouge Water Company, and Todd Talbot, who works for ExxonMobil, still sit on the commission even as they face ethics charges. Their terms have not expired yet.
Former commissioners Nelson Morvant, who works for Entergy, and Ronnie Albritton, who works for Georgia-Pacific, have been replaced, but could still face penalties over their time on the board.
Environmental advocates and scientists have repeatedly raised concerns that the aquifer is being drawn down faster than it can be replenished, raising the risk for saltwater intrusion that would make it unusable as a drinking water source. They question whether the groundwater commission has been conservative enough about private industry’s use of the aquifer.
But employees from the aquifer’s industrial users have sat on the groundwater commission without repercussions since its inception in the early 1970s, and if the Louisiana Legislature had its way, they would continue to do so.
State lawmakers passed legislation earlier this year to carve out an exception to the ethics law that allowed industrial users to continue to put their own employees on the commission. It also would have voided the current ethics charges being brought against the McGhee and the four other men.
Edwards vetoed the bill in late June.
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“The industrial users of the aquifer can provide nominations of individuals that will not run afoul of the ethics code, and my most recent appointees to the Commission do not have this issue,” Edwards wrote in a letter explaining his veto.
While the governor said he couldn’t support industrial users continuing to sit on the commission, he would support a narrower bill that erases the current ethics charges faced by McGhee and others.
“Should the legislature come back in the next session with an exception that is narrowly drafted to cure a previous inadvertent violation, I will support it,” he wrote. “I cannot support a broad exception for all members in the future.”
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