Bill would undo ethics charge on industry appointees to Capital Area Groundwater Conservation Commission

A Senate committee will take up a bill Tuesday that would allow industrial companies to nominate their employees to the Capital Area Groundwater Conservation Commission, an 18-member volunteer panel that regulates the Southern Hills Aquifer. The aquifer supplies Baton Rouge’s fresh drinking water and provides area industrial plants with water for their operations.

In so doing, the measure—SB203 by Sen. Bodi White, R-Central—would retroactively undo ethics charges filed in 2020 against five members of the CAGWCC by the Louisiana Ethics Commission.

The commission charged that the five groundwater commissioners—all employees of large industrial users of aquifer water—have a conflict of interest that violates state ethics laws because they are nominated to their positions on the commission by their employers, who they in turn regulate.

White’s bill would clear the way not only for industry to continue to nominate its own members to the CAGWCC but would retroactively erase the 2020 charges by the Ethics Commission, which are currently being adjudicated by an administrative law judge.

“Exempting groundwater commissioners from the state ethics law essentially allows the regulated users of the aquifer—private companies—to capture the regulatory body designed to manage our drinking water source,” says Mary Lee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which filed the original ethics complaint against the groundwater commissioners in 2019. “It gives legal protection to the fox in the hen house.”

LEAN, which has been spearheading a Save Our Water campaign that seeks to limit industrial use of the aquifer, is urging opponents to let their legislators know they oppose the bill, which will be heard by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee at 10 a.m. at the state Capitol. LEAN says the bill could threaten the long-term sustainability of Baton Rouge’s drinking water and compromise the integrity of the commission. 

“SB203 by Sen. Bodi White verifies the ethics violation currently and wants to retroactively erase legitimate ethics violations.” Orr says. “What kind of message does that send to the people of our state?”

White, who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, was in hearings today and could not be reached for comment before this afternoon’s deadline.

Calls to the Ethics Commission about the implications of retroactively undoing their findings were not returned before this afternoon’s deadline.