A commission that regulates use of an aquifer that supplies drinking water to more than 600,000 people declined to pick a new director this week, after its previous leader quit on the spot during a June board meeting.

Whoever the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission selects will steer a 50-year-plan with the Water Institute of the Gulf that will decide how to manage pumping from the aquifer, which is exacerbating the threat of saltwater intrusion. That plan could require major industries to pump from the Mississippi River, lightening the burden on the aquifer.

The commission is trying to find a way to fund the next research phase of that plan -- currently pegged at $1.6 million – which could include raising water bills.

Commission members said the choice of a new director was too important to be rushed. But it’s one more delay by a commission that state watchdogs have said does not do enough with its authority, and which environmentalists have accused of slow-walking action to protect industry.  

The commission had winnowed a field of 77 candidates down to two finalists: Joey Hebert, a Republic Services executive who is a former commission chairman and a former Georgia-Pacific engineer, and Philip Zimmerman, a leadership consultant and onetime Dunham School department head who worked nearly 20 years in private sector engineering and management. But, following four hours of presentations, question-and-answer sessions and close-door meetings Wednesday, it decided to bring in three other semifinalists.

"This is too important. We want to get it right," said Commissioner Joey Normand after the vote at the Baton Rouge Marriott.

Commissioner Chairman Nelson Morvant, with whom Normand has often sparred over the direction and pace of the commission's actions, tersely agreed.

"What Joey said," Morvant said.

The three additional candidates under consideration are:

  • Emile Ancelet, water quality director for the Bayou Vermilion District
  • Gary Beard, a former Baton Rouge state legislator and a former Metro Airport commissioner who works as an engineer in the compliance division for Texas Eastern Corp
  • Thomas Clark, a former railroad, mining and petroleum drilling executive who also formerly served as a multimodal commerce commissioner for the state Department of Transportation and Development.

Debate over how quickly to proceed with the plan has revealed lingering tensions on the board. Some members have voiced frustration with the slow pace, but other members have urged the commission to move cautiously and get the science right.

Tony Duplechin, the previous director, quit mid-way through a meeting in which the plan was under discussion.

In his interview, Zimmerman, one of the two finalists, pointedly noted that an LSU researcher told the commission nearly six years ago that Baton Rouge Water Co.'s Lula well field and Entergy's wells in Baton Rouge's industrial district were the definitive causes of salt water intrusion in two key water-bearing layers of the aquifer. He said he would go to the companies, if director, to try to work out a cooperative solution with them to protect the aquifer from further intrusion.

"That's your duty. That's your calling,” he told the commissioners. “That's the reason why you were established in 1974. That's the board's purpose. That's your mission."

Both companies have employees on the groundwater commission who will vote in selecting the next director, including its chairman, Morvant, an Entergy employee.

In his interview, Hebert emphasized his experience with the panel — he was twice its chairman —  also his independence from his former longtime employer, Georgia-Pacific, a major water groundwater user regulated by the commission. He said he has no pension from the company and his 401K has been rolled over.

Hebert said his breadth of experience as a commission member, in industry and as a Department of Environmental Quality geologist primed him for the job.

"I feel like it's calling for me at this point in my career," he said.

Editor's note: This story was changed at 8:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, to say that Thomas Clark formerly served on as a state highway department multimodal commissioner. The Advocate regrets the error.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

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