Environmentalists have filed an ethics complaint against the Baton Rouge-area groundwater commission, which they allege is being run inappropriately because regulated businesses have seats on its board.

Critics have frequently decried the arrangement as letting foxes guard the henhouse. They warn that without better management, the cost of drinking water could rise while quality falls. In turn, the companies say they have the experience and technical expertise needed to safeguard the aquifer beneath Baton Rouge.

As fresh water is pumped out of the ground, salt water can cross over an underground fault line that runs roughly along Interstate 10. There is ongoing debate about whether the Capital Area Groundwater Conservation Commission is doing enough to prevent salt water intrusion, and whether drastic steps are needed, such as restricting industrial access to the aquifer and requiring that companies use river water in their operations.

A recent legislative audit questioned whether it was a violation of state law for people to serve on a board while receiving salaries and benefits from businesses regulated by that board. The commission has 18 members, and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network is focused on five who currently work at for-profit private companies that draw groundwater, as well as a sixth board member who is retired from one of the businesses. Other board members represent local government agencies and groups such as the Louisiana Cattlemen's Association.

The four companies with board representation account for most of the water pumped out of the aquifer. Those companies, and the amount of water they drew last year, are: the Baton Rouge Water Company (24 billion gallons), Georgia-Pacific (13 billion gallons), ExxonMobil (10 billion gallons) and Entergy Louisiana (3 billion gallons).

In their official response to auditors, the groundwater commission wrote that the Louisiana Board of Ethics would have to decide whether it's illegal for company employees to receive board votes. LEAN has now officially requested an investigation.

"The absence of a strong regulatory program … is directly attributable to the influence of these members who are fatally conflicted; their actual careers, paychecks and future retirements hinged on the protection of their company's interests before the CAGWCC, which primarily mean maintenance of the status quo," LEAN director Marylee Orr wrote in a letter to the Ethics Board and shared with The Advocate.

Orr references testimony given by a Water Company executive in 2013 to the state Public Service Commission. The executive said his company's long-term plan involved eventually switching from groundwater to Mississippi River water. Baton Rouge residents would have to fund such a conversion, and transitioning to lower-quality river water could lead to adverse health effects, Orr wrote.

Georgia-Pacific spokesman Kelly Ferguson remarked that industrial users make up only a "small portion" of the overall board and "give the state a balanced view." He and a statement from Entergy pointed out that the Legislature gave industrial users seats on the board when it set up the groundwater commission.

Former Entergy employee and board member Mark Walton has also sent around a list of 42 state boards with a similar arrangement, mostly professional groups like the Louisiana state boards of dentistry, home inspectors, plumbing and veterinary medicine.

It is vital that companies have representation on the groundwater commission, Baton Rouge Water Company Vice President Hays Owen said.

"We have all the current knowledge," and having the commission operate without guidance from industry would be like piloting a ship without a compass, he said. Owen pointed out that it was the Water Company — not the groundwater commission — which built the scavenger well in Baton Rouge that intercepts salt water before it reaches its drinking water well.

ExxonMobil deferred to the commission, whose director Tony Duplechin said he had not yet been informed of the ethics complaint. He said he did not think the companies had enough representation to sway the board and argued that removing the aquifer's biggest users would be akin to taxation without representation.

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