ABBEVILLE — District 49 State Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, explained her vote in favor of failed House Bill 563 in the House Natural Resources Committee to the Vermilion Parish School Board on Thursday night.
Even though the bill concerning oilfield waste cleanup failed to pass the committee 9-8, Champagne said she was there at the request of School Board member Tony Fontana.
Fontana had expressed disappointment at her vote in favor of the measure despite requests from the district to oppose it in committee.
Champagne said she was in favor of the bill because as it was originally composed by District 43 Rep. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, it would have guaranteed cleanups of any property polluted by oilfield companies while not interfering with any pending litigation against the oil and gas industry.
Champagne said she talked to Superintendent Randy Schexnayder and board attorney Calvin Woodruff shortly before the five-hour committee meeting, when they raised concerns, but she voted in favor of a substitute bill introduced to the committee that would have sped up the cleanup process by oilfield companies.
She said this would have allowed the School Board to more quickly put the properties affected by pollution back into commerce.
“I have always been a proponent of creating jobs, which helps build your tax base,” Champagne said. “I feel the right vote would have been to allow the bill to move forward to allow the fields to be cleaned. The oil companies also want to clean the properties without admitting fault, and pending lawsuits against them could still have gone on.”
Schexnayder said even though the companies did not own the Title 16 land, they were in charge of managing it for the state and wanted to be part of any legislation pertaining to the cleanup process as well as wanting a say in the process itself.
Woodruff also said the district was worried that if the bill had passed, any disputes with the state Department of Natural Resources would have had to be settled in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, which would have put the parish’s five lawsuits on hold for years.
After Champagne said she was voting strictly to have the properties cleaned as quickly as possible, Fontana accused her of taking away parish rights to protect its property and trying to give it to oil companies.
Champagne replied that School Board representatives spoke to her only moments before the committee meeting and there was nothing in the bill that stated a direct impact on Vermilion Parish.
“Even then, I knew the intent of the bill was to clean up property, which would help the School Board and the parish,” she said. “I did not vote against you. I voted to help landowners across the state by expediting cleanups.”