Bill regarding ‘audit privilege’ for companies heads to Oklahoma House committee

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OKLAHOMA CITY - A bill criticized by some conservation groups as favoring industry over environmental protection efforts is expected to be heard this week in an Oklahoma House committee.

Senate Bill 1003, also known as the "Oklahoma Environmental, Health and Safety Audit Privilege Act," is sponsored by Sen. Mark Allen, R-Spiro, and Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore. It passed the Oklahoma Senate by a vote of 36 to 7 in March.

According to the bill's language, it encourages "voluntary compliance with environmental and occupational health and safety laws."

"It’s actually extra reporting of an incident. I don’t understand the push-back on the bill because it’s actually an environmentally friendly bill," McBride said. "It does not do away kind of inspections by DEQ or whoever on any environmental stuff. It actually adds another layer of inspection by self-policing."

The bill was requested by the Oklahoma Secretary of Energy. It would allow companies, for example, to notify the Department of Environmental Quality that it intends to undergo a voluntary audit of its environmental, health and safety practices. It requires that violations discovered during the audit be disclosed to the Department of Environmental Quality and any corrective action required to return to compliance be completed.

However, legal counsel for the Secretary confirms with News 4 that it creates a "privilege" for an audit report conducted voluntarily by preventing the public or organizations from accessing the the independent report that is developed. Though violations would be public record, environmental groups said this could be a problem.

"All of the documents associated with the particular environmental incident that they have received audit privilege for – they are kept secret by law. Even judges cannot get these documents," Johnson Grimm-Bridgwater, with the Oklahoma Sierra Club, said. "We don’t feel that corporations should be given special privileges over the rights of citizens, especially not by elected officials."

Supporters of the bill stress it does not change or weaken existing environmental laws.

"I think that’s kind of the message, get more people involved in policing themselves. They will still continue to be inspected. This is just an added layer," McBride said.

However, opponents argue they're not convinced the bill will produce any benefits for the environment.

"They’ve analyzed these bills in states where they’ve been passed, and the argument that by giving corporations a chance to make right out of the public eye that they will naturally do that?" questioned Grimm-Bridgwater. "There  are no studies, no legal reviews that can show that these laws significantly improve the environment where they’re passed."

The bill is expected to be heard on Tuesday in the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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