Power of Tragedy: New safety law shakes up Texas electric industry

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TYLER, Texas (KETK) – Earlier this month, the Public Utility Commission of Texas officially adopted the “William Thomas Heath Power Line Safety Act” into the Texas Administrative Code.

The law, which increases public safety and transparency within the electric utility industry, was the state’s reaction and answer to a horrific accident in East Texas.

The intention of the act is simple, protect the public from dangerous power lines, but the journey of the act was complicated from the very beginning.

On August 5, 2017, three East Texas boy scouts were sailing on Lake O’ the Pines during a weekend retreat.

While they were on the water, the mast of their boat came in contact with a low-hanging power line, crossing above the lake.

All three scouts: Will Brannon, 17, Thomas Larry, 11, and Heath Faucheux, 16, were electrocuted.

Two and a half years after that horrific day, a power line safety act bearing the boys’ names is now a law in Texas.

That process started with an emotional meeting between the boys’ parents and their local lawmaker.

“I’ll never forget, the initial meeting was right here in my office,” State Representative Chris Paddie recalled, “I’m the father of two boys. It was really just something, it hurt my heart. It was something that became incredibly personal for me.”

Together, the parents and Rep. Paddie began to investigate power line safety laws in Texas.

Throughout their research, they say they were stunned by what they didn’t find.

“There was nothing in the code prior to this bill that made it mandatory for electric utilities to report inspections, fatalities, training, or any sort of accidents or incidents that happened, outside of their own people,” explained Stan Brannon, Will’s father.

Rep. Paddie and the parents agreed this was something that needed to change in order to better protect the public.

“The Texas utility law assumed that the utilities were self-policing, self-regulating, and self-reporting. We found out that that’s not always the case. The bigger ones, maybe. The smaller ones. Not so much,” said Mr. Brannon.

After the tragedy, the parents said they discovered the power line that killed their sons was hanging too low in accordance with the National Electric Safety Code.

Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative eventually buried those fatal power lines under the lake, 19 months after the boys were killed.

Co-Op spokesman Tony McCullough said they buried the lines just because they wanted to, not because the state or anyone else ordered them to.

“You know for the safety of East Texans and for the beauty of that lake, too. It’s a beautiful lake. We wanted to make sure it was done, and so we went ahead and did the process,” said McCullough during a 2019 phone interview.

Seeing a blatant need for increased safety, Rep. Paddie authored House Bill 4150, requiring electric utilities, through a series of public reports, to explain the steps they take to protect Texans.

“At the state level that structure didn’t really exist, and frankly, if you look around the country, there were no other states who had things like that as well. So really this was a first of its kind even at the state level in the country that I’m aware of,” said Rep. Paddie.

However, new legislation means new changes, something that’s not always welcomed by the industries affected.

Realizing the potential battle ahead, Rep. Paddie pushed forward anyway.

“I’m fine with industry, I love industry. I appreciate the contributions they make, but at the end of the day, I am in the legislature to serve the people from six counties in East Texas who sent me there to be their voice,” said Rep. Paddie.

During the legislative negotiations, Rep. Paddie said he agreed to some compromises within the bill, but the electric industry did, too.

“I was ready to fight as much as I needed to fight to make sure we did something good. They knew obviously, I was serious about it. It wasn’t going to be something I let go, but they also knew I was someone who was reasonable, who was willing to sit there and hear what their concerns were,” said Rep. Paddie.

Support from fellow lawmakers continued to grow. State Rep. Jay Dean from Longview signed on as a co-author of HB 4150, and State Sen. Bryan Hughes of Mineola introduced the companion bill in the senate.

Electric industry leaders also pledged their backing. Some even testified in support of the bill in front of the State Affairs Committee, including Mike Williams, president of Texas Electric Cooperatives and Robert Walker, general manager for Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative.

The committee showed its support for HB 4150 and passed it through to the Texas House of Representatives. During the next vote, not only did the boys’ parents, who were sitting in the galley, receive an emotional standing ovation from the house floor, but the bill was also unanimously passed by house lawmakers, who all stood at the front in solidarity with Representative Paddie.

“That day on the floor will be something I remember for the rest of my life. To see them [the parents] up there. Their response. To see my colleagues’ response, coming and standing beside me. It just, was awesome,” said Rep. Paddie.

The bill was passed with 145 yeas and zero nays. From there, it moved to the Texas Senate, where it also received overwhelming support.

“Safety and caring about whether or not kids are killed by low-hanging power lines is not a partisan issue,” said Rep. Paddie, “Even though we may fight at times over certain issues, at the end of the day, we’ve got a lot of folks who care about people.”

A few weeks later, Governor Greg Abbott signed the “William Thomas Heath Power Line Safety Act” into law.

Annually, it requires electric utilities to report the type of hazard and safety training they provide to their employees.

They also have to report public injuries and fatalities involving any of their noncompliance power lines.

Every five years, they must publicly report the percentage of transmission lines they inspected in the past five years, as well as report the percentage they plan to inspect in the following five years.

“This legislation is supposed to create a scorecard that the public can grade or judge different utilities against each other, to see who’s doing a better job at public safety,” explained Michelle Brannon, Will’s mother.

After the law was signed, it was sent to the Texas Public Utility Commission for public comment.

“That is a process you do have to pay attention to, and I know the families paid attention to it, as did we,” said Rep. Paddie.

During that time, some of the same utility companies that testified in support of the legislation before the State Affairs Committee filed comments and proposed changes to the act months later.

Texas Electric Cooperatives, which represents 14 cooperatives in East Texas, including Upshur Rural Electric, submitted a comment about not being able to report their line inspections from the past five years:

“Electric cooperatives conduct regular inspections of their transmission facilities, but may not have had systems in place to accurately quantify this metric prior to the new requirement taking effect on September 1, 2019… It is reasonable, therefore, to apply the reporting framework in a forward-looking manner and not require utilities to retrospectively “back in” to an inspection percentage for a time period during which there was no requirement to track or report such information.”

The PUC responded:

“The commission declines to make changes to the rule as proposed… Affected utilities should make efforts to accurately report that information. In addition, the form for reporting this information provides space for a utility to explain the basis for the reported percentage, if it chooses to provide an explanation.”

The Texas Public Power Association commented about the reporting requirements for injuries and fatalities:

“The phrase ‘vertical clearance requirements,’ … raises the question of whether the rule is intended to require reporting regarding all vertical clearances, or only those over the identified waterways.”

The PUC responded:

“Due to the importance of safety and safety reporting, the commission concludes that the broader interpretation – all types of clearances provided for in the National Electrical Safety Code – is appropriate.”

More than seven pages of concerns and suggestions were summarized and addressed in the PUC’s response below:

In the end, the commission adopted the law with “no changes made to the text as proposed” and the “William Thomas Heath Power Line Safety Act” was officially written into the Texas Administrative Code.

Rep. Paddie explained while no one likes more regulation, these changes hold all electric utilities to the same standard.

“It not only allows them to measure themselves as it relates to what they’re telling the public but also to measure themselves against other people in the industry. If ‘Company A’ is inspecting a significantly higher percentage of their lines than ‘Company B’, that puts a little pressure on the board and the members of ‘Company B’ to say ‘Hey maybe we need to step it up a little bit,'” said Rep. Paddie.

The parents say they feel accomplished with the new law but will continue to be a watchdog for power line safety.

“We’ve been asked before, ‘Why are we doing this?'” said Mrs. Brannon, “It’s not going to make our life any better. If anything, getting up and having to talk to people about my son’s accident is hard, but I just really feel that this is our mission, to get up and have something to do, that it won’t bring my son back, but it will keep other people safe, gives me peace,” said Mrs. Brannon.

The couple said they will always remember the people who have advocated for them along the way, both publicly and behind the scenes.

“We didn’t do this by ourselves. We’ve had so many people reach out, and the other families have also been instrumental in standing beside us along the way,” said Mrs. Brannon.

They said they are also thankful for the support of their lawmaker who chose to listen to their story and commit to making a change in Austin.

However, Rep. Paddie believes he’s the one who’s most thankful.

“I will forever be grateful for the relationship I now have with those families. I feel like we’ll have that forever,” said Rep. Paddie. “It’s like in our personal lives, when we seek to bless others, we’re the ones who end up getting blessed even more. That’s the kind of experience I equate this to.”

An experience, through the power of tragedy, that will create a life-saving legacy.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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