Like many bills with relatively simple purposes, Sen. Billy
Mickle's Senate Bill 679 creating the Environmental, Health and
Safety Audit Privilege Act, raises some complex questions.
It is a very important issue for businesses and corporations
operating in Oklahoma. Efforts to pass such legislation have been
unsuccessful in recent years leaving Oklahoma at a disadvantage with
surrounding states that have enacted it. Past opposition has come
from environmental groups.
Mickle, D-Durant, an attorney and Senate majority floor leader,
was successful in getting the bill through the Senate Judiciary
Committee last week by a vote of nine to one, with the title
crippled. He called it a "work in progress," indicating further
study of its provisions, more changes to be made and the possibility
of it going to a conference committee.
The original intent of those sponsoring the legislation was to
encourage voluntary compliance with environmental and occupational
health and safety laws, similar to the Texas law. It accomplishes
this by providing incentives for companies to conduct self-audits to
determine if there are violations of these laws and to implement
Probably in no other area is voluntary compliance more necessary
than in the vast and massive body of state and federal environmental
rules and regulations.
James R. Barnett, president of the Environmental Federation of
Oklahoma points out there simply are not enough enforcement
in the state and federal governments to enforce all the laws, rules
and regulations without it. He believes the conduct of voluntary
audits of their operations by companies should be encouraged and
supported by the state.
Key features of the legislation is the granting of evidentiary
privilege for certain information gathered in a voluntary self-
process and providing immunity from administrative and civil
sanctions by regulatory agencies for violations uncovered and
voluntarily disclosed as a result of the audit.
Mickle told the committee his bill is substantially different from
the one two years ago. That bill was authored in the Senate by Sen.
Paul Muegge, D-Tonkawa, who refused to bring his own bill up for
consideration in his own committee.
He has consulted with environmental and business groups to work
out the differences, Mickle said. In addition, most of the
recommendations of the State Department of Environmental Quality
either have been or will be included in the measure.
Some believe the Committee Substitute for SB 679 would apply only
to the DEQ because of its definition of regulated facility, but
language implies differently. Such a limitation certainly could
divide or lessen support for the legislation. There are a number of
state agencies that have environmental and occupational health and
safety regulatory authority that should be included.
Mark Coleman, DEQ director, points out his agency, through its
rules, already has a program that provides immunity from civil
penalties under the circumstances delineated in the legislation. It
is one of the longest standing immunity programs in the nation. It
was developed by a committee of the Oklahoma Bar Association, and
the model for the Federal Environmental Protection Agency's
audit immunity policy. …