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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bodi White, R-Central, has filed a bill that would break up BREC and set up new recreation districts in St. George, Central and Zachary.

A proposal to exempt the industry members of the Capital Area Groundwater Commission from certain ethics laws after five members of the board were hit with conflicts-of-interest charges won support from a Senate panel Tuesday, over opposition from environmental advocates.

At stake is whether five members of the board – people employed by the Baton Rouge Water Company, ExxonMobil, Georgia-Pacific and Entergy – can sit on the board without running afoul of state ethics laws. The Louisiana Board of Ethics voted to bring charges against the members last year because they are employed by companies they regulate.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, filed legislation that allows those industry commissioners – and others employees by industrial firms regulated by the commission – to serve on the board without facing conflict-of-interest charges.

5 years before ethics charges were filed, groundwater commission was told of potential conflicts

White, a former employee of ExxonMobil, argued the industrial users like petrochemical companies and utilities should have a voice on the 18-member regulatory board. He said the Legislature has always intended to let private companies regulated by the commission have board members sit on the commission.

The bill would apply retroactively, meaning it would apply to the five members currently facing ethics charges for serving on the board while being employed by the industrial users. 

Gray Sexton, the attorney representing the three members employed by Exxon, Georgia-Pacific and Entergy who were charged by the Ethics Board, said his clients haven’t been accused of corruption or wrongdoing other than drawing salaries from their employers.

New ethics charges now cover nearly 1/3 of Baton Rouge groundwater commission members

“No one’s interests will be served if these three members are denied a seat at the table,” Sexton said.

The bill, which passed unanimously out of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, was supported by industrial companies like Exxon, Entergy and Koch Industries. It heads to the full Senate next, and must get approval from the House and Gov. John Bel Edwards to become law.

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The commission regulates the use of the Southern Hills Aquifer, which provides water for hundreds of thousands of people in the Baton Rouge region. It is at the center of a years-long fight over how to best address the slow intrusion of saltwater into the fresh drinking water source.

Ethics Board to groundwater commissioners: You can't regulate the people you work for

Industrial companies pump water from the aquifer and want to continue that practice. But environmental advocates have for years tried to push them off and make them pump water from the Mississippi River, arguing they are exacerbating saltwater intrusion that could threaten the drinking water supply.

Environmental advocates have argued that having employees of the companies regulated by the groundwater commission represents a conflict of interest that shouldn’t be allowed.

Kathy Wascom, of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, on Tuesday called the bill an “ethics carve out” that benefits industry. “Our drinking water is so vital to everything we do,” she said.

Five years before the members were charged with conflicts-of-interest violations, an attorney for the groundwater commission warned of the exact problem that led to the charges, according to commission records. 

Plan to protect Baton Rouge drinking water from saltwater moving forward under new leadership

The legal problem, Board of Ethics Administrator Kathleen Allen explained, is that the law creating the groundwater commission didn’t specify that members nominated by industrial users of the aquifer be employed by those companies. Therefore, the members are getting something of value--a salary--by companies they regulate. That violates state ethics laws.

The Ethics Board, which is required to make recommendations on changes to ethics laws, opposes White’s bill, according to a letter sent to lawmakers.

Staff writer David Mitchell contributed to this report.