This story was first reported by Louisiana Illuminator and republished with permission.
The House and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced several bills this week that would weaken transparency by making various government records secret and hidden from the public for years. House Bill 72, sponsored by Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan, R-Lafayette, would allow industries to conduct self-audits for environmental accidents and would make those self-audit records secret for two years.
The bill had already been approved by the House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment. The Governmental Affairs Committee held a separate hearing to consider its effect on Louisiana’s Public Records Law. The committee approved several such bills this week, including one that, according to testimony, “would absolutely destroy” the public’s ability to litigate for access to government records.
During an April 22 meeting of the natural resources committee, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Chuck Carr Brown said HB 72 would not stop the department from conducting regular inspections at industrial facilities. “It gives us more information, and it actually improves environmental quality,” he said.
Celena Cage, a DEQ administrator, spoke on behalf of the department Tuesday. Echoing Brown’s point, she said she expects the bill would encourage industries to be better stewards of the environment and also would relieve the DEQ’s strained audit and inspection resources.
But Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, expressed alarm at the idea of industries conducting self-audits and keeping the results secret from nearby residents. He said a severe environmental accident happened in his district in 2011, and residents were kept in the dark for nearly a decade — even as a carcinogen was detected in nearby drinking water.
The now-shuttered Dresser Industries facility in Pineville, which was acquired by General Electric in 2011, experienced a chemical spill that same year. The facility reported the spill to the DEQ the following year, but the DEQ didn’t notify the nearby residents until 2020.
According to DEQ reports, the department had known since at least 2014 that a volatile degreasing solvent, trichloroethylene, had been detected in the community’s groundwater at levels 10,000 times greater than what is deemed safe. Several lawsuits have since been filed against the company, including a medical claim alleging the contamination killed two residents and sickened two others with cancer.
“We’re now asking that that kind of information, if they self-audited, would be kept from the people who live in those neighborhoods, whose children play in the streets and in the backyards, who are already afraid because their property value has plummeted?” Johnson asked. “If this happened again, this would give Dresser or another major corporation the power to — I mean, we can call it confidentiality, (but) I’d call it — hide the information from the public without having to jump through nine different hoops.”
Cage, the DEQ administrator, said the self-auditing would only apply to accidents that don’t have to be reported to the state or federal government. The DEQ would have also determined how long the records should remain secret, but the committee amended the bill, which would limit the confidentiality period to two years.
“Can you help me mesh in my mind how that’s not hiding something?” Rep. Jeremy LaCombe, D-Livonia, asked.
Amber Litchfield, an attorney for the DEQ, said the confidentiality provision is only to allow for settlement talks without interference from third parties.
Rep. Tanner Magee, R- Houma, offered an amendment that would limit the secrecy period to three years. Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, then offered a substitute amendment to limit it to two years.
Ivey’s amendment was adopted unanimously, after which the committee voted 8-6 to advance the bill.
OTHER FREEDOM OF INFORMATION MATTERS
The committee on Tuesday also approved a bill that would require people to show an ID card when requesting public records.
Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, said he intends for his House Bill 438 to address a problem with software bots filing voluminous public records requests with Louisiana agencies.
Opponents of the bill, including Sarah Whittington with the Justice & Accountability Center of Louisiana, said they are concerned it would prevent incarcerated people, who often have no ID cards, from requesting copies of their legal records to prepare an appeal.
The committee approved the bill unanimously. It heads to the House floor for debate.
Another measure, House Bill 456, sponsored by Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, would make secret certain records from Louisiana Economic Development’s tax incentive and tax credit programs.
Edmonds said the bill is needed to protect employees’ personal data, but it would also allow the agency to withhold the wages information of what a company pays certain job positions and withhold a company’s FastLane code, which allows the public to identify a company with a particular tax incentive program when searching for records online.
Rep. Barry Ivey asked Edmonds to work on an amendment so that when it’s heard on the floor of the House it would limit the bill to only blocking access to an employee’s personal information. The committee then advanced the bill without objection.