The Conflicts of Interest SB 203 Enables Are As Clear as the Drinking Water Industries Monopolize

View of Mississippi River, Natchez, Mississippi” by Ken Lund is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

In Louisiana, it’s not uncommon for bills that stink of corruption to fly through the legislature. However, Senate Bill 203 has really outdone itself in regard to malfeasance. 

The bill, sponsored by Senator Mack A. “Bodi” White Jr. will not only legalize conflicts of interest on the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission in the future, it will also void past ethics violations that concerned conflicts of interests for Commission members. 

“In the seventies, legislation was passed to create the Groundwater Commission to protect our drinking water. However, since then, the Commission has not stopped, or even slowed the saltwater intrusion into our groundwater drinking sources, or the industrial pumping that is causing the contamination.” Dianne Hanley of Together Louisiana explained. “Why? There are commissioners who are serving on the Commission, who are employees of the very industries whose groundwater pumping is being raised right now.”

Currently, there are members serving on the Commission who work for the industries that withdraw water from the Southern Hills aquifer, the primary clean water source for East Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes. This presents an obvious and dangerous conflict of interest, enabling industrial users of the aquifer to regulate their own use of it. 

A 2019 Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s report found that the Commission “does not effectively regulate water withdrawals from the aquifer to reduce and manage saltwater encroachment and ensure the sustainability of fresh groundwater for the future.” 

This bill will allow industries to continue to control the Commission enabling the ethics violations that led to the bill’s creation. The bill was created in response to five commissioners, who are employees of ExxonMobil, Georgia-Pacific, Entergy, and the Baton Rouge Water Company, being charged by the Louisiana Board of Ethics with violations. Retroactively, the legislation would void the ethics violations of these five commissioners. 

Senate Bill 203 implies that even if an individual is under civil investigation for ethics charges, the Louisiana Legislature can pass legislation to retroactively absolve them of any wrongdoing. In doing so, Senate Bill 203 regresses ethics law, endangering Baton Rouge’s clean water source, and setting a bad precedent regarding conflicts of interests. 

Environmental advocates and groups are particularly alarmed by the bill because saltwater has been intruding on the Baton Rouge-area aquifer which supplies most of the drinking water to the region. These advocates and groups suspect that this is because industries are extracting too much water from the aquifer for commercial purposes. 

“There is a clear public, private conflict of interest in employees sitting on the state board that regulates their employers,” Hanley argued. “Because of excessive drilling and use of the groundwater aquifers, drinking water in the Baton Rouge area is threatened by saltwater intrusion. There are reports too that the Baton Rouge water company has already bought land near the Mississippi River. If it goes unchallenged, Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes will be forced to switch to a source of drinking water from the Mississippi.”

These industries could take water from the Mississippi River, it would just be more expensive for them. Many industries in southeast Louisiana use river water since it’s a much more environmentally sustainable resource than the Southern Hills aquifer. 

Industrial companies currently self-report how much aquifer extraction is occurring, so groups like Louisiana Environmental Action Network and Together Baton Rouge have commented that it’s hard to gauge how much water they are actually taking.

The bill sailed through Louisiana’s House and Senate, so now it’s up to Governor John Bel Edwards to veto it. “In a conversation with the governor that we had, Together Louisiana and Together Baton Rouge, the governor shared with us that he thought the legislators will be low to support a bill that exempts anyone from the ethics code and that changes the ethics code for some,” Hanley explained. “We’re asking [the governor] to veto this because it would exonerate people who are violating the code, and it would put into law the ability to continue to be on the commission even if one has a conflict of interest.”

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