What Could Go Wrong? Bill Enables Pollution by Ensuring Secrecy & Reduced Fines for Violations

Air Pollution, Refinery, Louisiana” by cesarharada.com is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Louisiana’s coast is eroding. The air in Cancer Alley is toxic. The seafood industry is suffering. The nation’s first climate refugees had to abandon their home’s in Louisiana. 

No state has been more impacted by climate change. Yet, Louisiana’s legislature continues to overlook protecting the environment, and in turn, their state’s residents, as a priority, instead allying themselves with big businesses. 

This was made apparent by the Louisiana legislature’s support of HB72, which will enable petrochemical companies to pollute in the state. The bill passed with a landslide vote in the House of Representatives, and has been referred to the Senate Legislative Bureau. 

HB72 will require “the secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality to establish a voluntary environmental self-audit program.” This program will not only allow polluting industries to self-audit but also keep their violations confidential and will reduce the fines they have to pay for breaking the law. 

“It’s like me going out and reading my Entergy use this month and then calling in and saying, ‘This is how much I used,'” Retired Army Lieutenant General Russel Honoré commented at the  Natural Resources and Environment Committee meeting.

Edgar Case with Together Louisiana said, “A self-audit is self-serving” benefiting petrochemical companies, not the resident who live nearby and breathe polluted air. 

Honoré explained that the bill’s confidential aspect would 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,” Honoré said. “It relies too much on the trust of people we don’t know and who don’t live there.”

Many opponents of the bill worry that since so many of Louisiana’s industrial plants are owned by international companies, they’ll be less likely to report incidents since they have less of a stake in the well-being of Louisiana residents. 

Environmental attorney Bill Goodell called the bill “bad policy” since it would create a loophole by reducing or eliminating civil penalties for violations. “What makes industry do the right thing is to have the threat of enforcement looming over their head,” Goodell said. By reducing the punishment for companies with environmental violations, intuitively, the bill will lead to more violations. 

The bill, which Goodell called “a rather vague rendition” of the self-reporting policy the EPA currently has in place, is still unspecific in regard to how extreme the self-reported pollution levels can be and what information will remain confidential. It was amended so that violation reports only stay confidential for two years. 

Although this bill is a bad idea, it’s not a new idea. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry first pitched legislation that would allow businesses to self-audit their environmental compliance in 1997, however, after the Environmental Protection Agency threatened to take away the state’s authority to enforce air and water violations if the bill passed, they said they would stop pursuing the legislation. 

In 2019, a similar bill, which was dubbed the “Pollution Secrecy Act” by environmental organizations, failed in the Louisiana House of Representatives. Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, commented on the 2019 bill, “Legislators should seriously consider whether it’s in the state’s or their best interest to put this irresponsible, half-baked idea into law.” While Jonathan Henderson, a lobbyist for LEAN and the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club, commented, “This privilege allows companies to hide results that may prove harmful, allowing for environmental destruction to occur without penalty. Laws like this make us less safe. Period.”

Environmental groups, including the Louisiana Budget Project, Louisiana Press Association, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Progress, Together Louisiana, and the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club are opposed to the bill. 

Petrochemical-related organizations like the Louisiana Chemical Association, Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, Atmos Energy, Entergy, and Phillips 66 support the bill.

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