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Coastal Desk

In Ongoing Fight To Protect Baton Rouge Water, House Committee Fights Ethics Charges

Austin R. Ramsey/IRW
The bank of the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge is dotted with petrochemical plants, oil refineries and paper mills. The concentration of industries in this area have earned an infamous moniker — “cancer alley” — but they are also using a disproportionate share of what could be a dwindling supply of fresh groundwater, experts say.

After nearly two hours of committee debate, a bill that would protect the current appointees on a water conservation board in Baton Rouge from ethics charges moves forward to the full House.

Senate Bill 203, sponsored by Republican State Senator Mack A. “Bodi” White Jr., prevents any changes to the board of the beleaguered Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission.

Established by the legislature to protect the region’s vulnerable Southern Hills Aquifer in 1974, it’s the only regulatory body in Louisiana that can hold groundwater users accountable. The aquifer is at risk of saltwater intrusion, and the board has come under fire for doing little to right the problem of overdrawing.

The commission has 18 members who represent industry, public water suppliers, state agencies and other stakeholders. They have the authority to permit wells, levy annual fees on users, and limit the amount of water that can be taken from the aquifer each day.

A 2019 report by the Legislative Auditor’s Office found that several commission members were employed by companies the commission regulates, a violation of a Louisiana law that prohibits public servants from receiving anything of economic value from regulated people or entities.

Community groups, citizens and environmental advocates spoke in opposition to the bill, saying the three industry representatives should be removed from the board.

Edgar Cage, a leader with Together Baton Rouge, a community group that has organized against the bill, testified during Wednesday's meeting.

“You don't miss your water until the wells run dry,” said Cage, warning of impending saltwater intrusion that could ruin the aquifer if overuse continues.

Scientists have found that industrial overpumping is exacerbating the problem.

“Eventually all of us will be drinking water out of the river,” Cage said, arguing that if the aquifer runs dry, the Baton Rouge region will be forced to draw water from the Mississippi River, like New Orleans does, which would be expensive.

White and other lawmakers argued that there was little evidence that the three industry representatives on the board had lobbied for industrial interests.

But in 2020, the Louisiana Board of Ethics charged five commissioners employed by the Baton Rouge Water Co., Entergy Corp., Georgia-Pacific and ExxonMobil with violating that law.

Critics point out that the commission has been generous to heavy groundwater users, and argue that having industry representatives on the board is a conflict of interest.

Advocates have proposed that big industry draw from the Mississippi River and leave the aquifer for residential use.

Despite community opposition, the House and Governmental Affairs Committee sent the bill to the House floor. If the House supports the bill in its current form it goes to the governor’s desk for his signature.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.

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