A unanimous vote in the Texas House on Friday sends a power lines safety bill rooted in a Northeast Texas tragedy to the Senate, where it is expected to pass with little or no dissent.
House Bill 4150, by state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, would require all utilities make regular inspections of their power lines to ensure those high-voltage carriers comply with state and federal height and other safety regulations.
Co-authored by GOP state Reps. Jay Dean of Longview and Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, the measure arises from the deaths of three Boy Scouts who were electrocuted when the topmast of their sailboat struck a low-slung power line strung across Lake O’ the Pines on Aug. 5, 2017.
“We amended it to name the bill itself after the boys,” Paddie said, after noting that House members had formally recognized the parents of Scouts Will Brannon, Heath Faucheux and Thomas Larry as the parents watched the 143-0 vote from the gallery Friday. “All of my colleagues came and stood with me as I laid the bill out (for consideration). We had the families stand up and recognized them.”
However, two of the three fathers who had gone to Austin on Tuesday, when HB 4150 initially was scheduled for debate, had returned to East Texas by Friday, Paddie said.
“The only thing they ever wanted out of all of this was for something positive to come out of this tragedy,” Paddie said. “And that’s what we were able to give them. ... The ultimate goal is to ensure that no family has to experience what they experienced.”
Will, 17, Heath, 16, and Thomas, 11, were at Alley Creek at Lake O’ the Pines with fellow Scouts from Hallsville-based Troop 620 on a weekend campout when the tragedy occurred. The two teens, who were helping the younger Scout earn a sailing merit badge, died immediately. Thomas died two days later.
The Will Thomas Heath Powerline Safety Act now goes to the Senate, where Paddie said state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is the sponsor.
“I expect it to move through the process pretty quick over there,” Paddie said, noting the bill’s support among industry officials, including testimony supporting the measure from Robert Walker, general manager of Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative, which owns the power line.
“We worked collaboratively,” Paddie said. “From the beginning, industry was involved in the discussions. ... My office, the families and industry (were) working collaboratively to get this outcome.”
The Will Thomas Heath Powerline Safety Act would require all utilities that own or operate transmission lines to first train employees to recognize safety problems in the lines and update the Public Utility Commission of Texas no later than May 1 of each year.
Those updates would report the percentage of lines that have been inspected in previous years and estimate a number for the ongoing year. The report would include all incidents of noncompliance with the National Electric Safety Code.
The bill will take effect Sept. 1 if OK’d in the Senate without amendment and signed by the governor.
The annual report required in the bill also is to include whether the utility is aware of easement agreements, “including but not limited to easement agreements with the Army Corps of Engineers.” Lake O’ the Pines is owned and operated by the Corps.
The report must include any deaths or injuries resulting from lines that are out of compliance.