After Texas boy scouts’ deaths, power line safety bill honors them

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Three Texas legislators are vowing to get a law passed that would compile information on the safety and reporting regulations of power lines throughout the state.

In August 2017, three Boy Scouts from East Texas — Will Brannon, Heath Faucheux and Thomas Larry — were killed at Lake O’ the Pines when their sailboat came in contact with power lines that were reported to be lower than they were supposed to be.

“In dealing with that tragedy, the families came to me and we visited — more than anything, they were looking for an opportunity to have something positive come out of such a horrible tragedy,” Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, said in a previous interview.

On Monday, the Texas House Committee on State Affairs heard public testimony on Paddie’s bill, House Bill 4150, which would require each electric utility, city-owned utility and electric cooperative owning or operating transmission lines to complete a report with a summary description of safety training programs for employees and contractors, as well as the number of incidents reported by workers or the public regarding power lines that are not in compliance with the National Electric Safety Code. Any fatalities or injuries resulting from transmission lines that are out of compliance would also have to be reported. The East Texas lawmaker said having this data compiled can serve as a resource not only for the public but also for utilities so they can hold themselves accountable.

The families of the three Boy Scouts testified during the committee hearing, asking lawmakers to consider how the proposed legislation could help prevent another tragedy. 

“It’s been 604 days since I looked into Heath’s eyes,” Michelle Faucheux told committee lawmakers. “I remember that day and every day of his short-lived life.”

Faucheux recounted the day she dropped her son off for his trip.

“Never would I have ever imagined it would be the very last conversation that I would have with my son,” she said.

After the incident, the families said they set out to find any information and reports related to safety and compliance from utility companies, but struggled to gather statistics. There is currently no set statewide standard for reporting, although some utility companies already do this.

“Power companies must be required to maintain and monitor the safety of their lines,” said Pamela Larry, the mom of Thomas. “Their lines cross so many of this country’s land – state and national parks, public lakes, the lawns of people’s homes and numerous other accessible areas. Power companies need to be held to the same, if not a higher standard than any other company that provides a service to the public.”

“The incident that cost Thomas, Will and Heath their lives was a direct result of a poor choice,” Larry added. “This tragedy was allowed to happen because there is a shocking lack of accountability required from the power industry and negligent oversight.”

A reporting system will serve as an accountability system, the parents said.

“In short, it will hold the utility companies’ feet to the fire in regards to safety,” Stan Brannon, father of Will, said.

Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative, the utility corporation that controls the power lines from the 2017 incident, supports Paddie’s legislation.

“I’m committed to helping in any way I can,” general manager Robert Walker said.

“Collectively, I think Chairman Paddie, the families and Upshur Rural believe more can be done to help ensure that families do not have to go through this experience or any kind of tragedy similar to this again,” he added.

In March, Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative told KETK it had buried the transmission lines under the lake.

A spokesperson from the Association of Electric Companies of Texas says the group is interested in seeing a solution that ensures power lines over public, recreational lakes are meeting National Electric Safety Code standards.

“We are hoping that providing this standard, as required in statute, helps prevent tragedies in the future,” Julia Rathgeber, president and CEO of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, said.

A committee substitute to the bill is getting finalized and should be ready by the end of this week, Paddie said.

“I’m thankful also to the industry who has come to me and made good faith efforts to talk about potential concerns and to talk about ways to make it better,” Paddie said after the hearing. “I think it’s in our best interest to craft the best policy we can.”

Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview, has signed onto Paddie’s bill as a joint author. Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, has filed a companion bill on the Senate side.

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