Article By: John Maccormack
Photos: Earl Nottingham
A new breed of Texas game wardens is out to protect not only people and wildlife but the resource itself.
On a windy February morning, with the Houston Ship Channel frothing the color of dirty tea and the bouquet of hydrocarbons spiking the air, Capt. Steve Gibson orders his pilot of a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department boat to go full throttle. Several miles up-channel, a Coast Guard helicopter has spotted a problem that needs to be checked out quickly. As part of the Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force, Gibson and his team are charged with patrolling the ship channel the way a cop walks a beat. Sometimes a beat is routine, and sometimes things get exciting.
The boat, a Boston Whaler with two 225-horsepower engines, leaps to a plane and within seconds is racing down the channel at 50 miles an hour. With a second task-force boat just off its shoulder, the Whaler zooms past smoking refineries, flotillas of massive barges and dreary tankers with such exotic names as Medi Trader and Tzarevtz. Their destination is a dry dock near Brady Island and the I-610 bridge. Recently, an environmental manager was arrested on felony water pollution charges resulting from a dry dock discharge.
At the dry dock, two stout tugboats are being sandblasted in preparation for a repainting. A fine-mesh black netting has been suspended around the dry dock, but it isn’t containing the dust and debris. Zillions of tiny brown flecks litter the water.
As the boats approach, the high-pressure hiss of sandblasters suddenly stops. That is to be expected, says John Feist, the warden at the Whaler’s controls. “See all that stuff on the water here?” he says. “Hear ’em shut down? The heavy stuff, the toxic paint chips, the metals, have already sunk. This is just what’s left, what floats.”
“It’s not a huge release,” says Gibson, as he bottles some samples, “but we have to document it. They were just indicted on felony water pollution, so we’ll use this to show they’re still doing it.”
For the past several years, a handful of specially trained Texas game wardens has been busting corporate polluters instead of poachers. They follow paper trails instead of deer trails. They haunt industrial areas instead of remote ranches. Working with city, county, state and federal agents and federal and state prosecutors, the environmental crimes unit has opened 120 criminal cases during the last two years.
It’s a new line of work for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, one that the public is still getting used to. To keep things from getting dangerous or confusing during an arrest, the game wardens on channel patrol wear dark shirts with POLICE in large letters on the front and GAME WARDENS on the back. There’s a good reason for that, explains Grahame Jones, a Houston-based game warden turned environmental specialist.
“When we jump out of the boat and some guy is running toward a valve, they recognize ‘police’ and they stop,” he says. “You don’t have to explain everything.”
“No one has any idea we are doing this,” Jones says. “The first question they ask is ‘Why is a game warden here?’ But in my mind, it’s a way we help manage the natural resources of the state. What good is landing a limit of fish if you can’t eat them?”
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department began investigating the state’s more flagrant corporate polluters in 1991, when Gov. Ann Richards ordered the creation of the Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force. Besides TPWD, several state agencies were required to participate, including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (formerly the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission), the Railroad Commission and the General Land Office. Federal agencies such as the Coast Guard, FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency also agreed to join. Because some counties lack the expertise and money to handle complex environmental cases, all environmental cases may be filed with the Travis County district attorney’s office in Austin.
Steve Gibson was one of the first game wardens assigned to the task force. “The purpose of the task force,” he says, “was to pool the resources of a number of state and federal agencies to pursue criminal remedies to violations of environmental statutes. Violators who were facing civil penalties just weren’t paying attention to the statutes, so the only thing to do was pursue criminal cases.”
Initially, TPWD’s environmental crimes team was undermanned and underfinanced. Gibson began work with the task force on a part-time basis in 1991. But by 1998, TPWD had assigned six full-time investigators and a captain to the mission.
These wardens now are based in Dallas, Corpus Christi, Austin and Houston. All Texas game wardens are licensed police officers of the state, and are trained in the basics of investigations. But to become environmental specialists, game wardens take several weeks of training from federal agencies. The two-week-long advanced course at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, prepares them for industrial cases. The center is equipped with a loading dock, offices and other equipment so that officers can simulate an arrest, collect samples and paperwork, file cases and go through a mock trial. Another weeklong school focuses on the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, a federal statute that covers the sampling of hazardous waste, and the storing, labeling and maintaining of the samples that might be used in court.
Cynthia Sorrell, the newest member of the team, joined the task force last summer after working as a field warden in East Texas for six years. Now she spends a lot of time around the Houston Ship Channel and adjacent petro-chemical complex, one of the largest in the world. Her new job required a crash reeducation.
“When I was out in the field, these guys were the guys to call about environmental problems, like fish kills,” she says. “It’s totally different. It’s a complete retraining. I didn’t even know what a grease trap was before this.”
Sorrell and Grahame Jones work closely with the EPA’s criminal investigation division and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, as well as with officers from Harris County and the Houston Police Department. Stephen Dicker of the Houston Police Department welcomes the help.
“We complement each other very well,” he says. “We provide them with office space, computers, telephones and so forth and, of course, logistical support. By the same token, they do things for us. They bring additional bodies and assets such as airplanes and boats. We primarily use TPWD boats on the channel patrols.”
Recently the Houston-based wardens, backed by task force members, worked for several months with local officers on a complicated case that required the long-term surveillance of a suspect business.
According to Sgt. Larry Mitchell of the Harris County Constable’s environmental office, the wardens were critical to bringing the long investigation to a successful conclusion.
“They did at least half the surveillance,” Mitchell says. “They brought in investigators from all over the state with vehicles and cameras and put them up in motels here, stuff I couldn’t do. And the day we did our search warrant, they had probably 20 game wardens here. I’ve never seen so many before and I’ve lived in Texas all my life.”
Roger Haseman, a Harris County prosecutor who handles environmental crimes, praises the investigations of TPWD officers.
“They’re very active,” he says. “They are very involved in all the big cases and small cases. They take their jobs seriously, and are really excited to work these types of cases. They generate a lot of cases that go through our office, and a lot of times the warden is the lead investigator. For the most part, their reports are better than those of the police officers who aren’t used to special crimes.”
While the Houston Ship Channel is the most obvious target for investigators, the abundant rivers and streams of Central Texas can be tempting for small companies looking for a cheap way to dispose of waste, says Jonathan Gray, a warden based in Austin. Gray recently saw the legal end of a typical dumping case involving an Austin waste-consulting firm called TriLogic.
The company charged its clients hundreds of dollars a drum to dispose of hazardous waste, he says, but instead of taking it to an approved facility as required by law, TriLogic found a cheaper alternative.
“They were making plenty of money,” he says, “but somewhere along the way they made the decision, ‘Let’s just put this stuff in storage,’ and ultimately they accumulated 57 drums of Class II waste.”
When TriLogic ran out of storage room, the company headed for Walnut Creek outside of Austin, and tossed out 18 drums and numerous five-gallon containers of waste, Gray says. “They dumped paint waste, solvents and used oil. They dumped it at the creek, but because it was so dry, we caught it in time. We had a remediation company come in and it cost the state $60,000 to clean it up.”
Like many illegal dumpers, TriLogic made a critical error.
“They left a little bit of evidence,” Gray says. “A small part of a label was left on a drum, which allowed us to track it to its generator, and they told us who had hauled it away for them.”
The president and another employee of TriLogic were charged with multiple felonies. After a long legal fight, in January they pleaded guilty to public endangerment. Each got jail time and a $40,000 fine.
“When you shut down a guy like this,” Gray says, “who’s really trying to beat the system, but is also endangering people’s well-being and the environment, we tend to think that’s a big hit. I think I’m making a difference on a larger scale.”
Making cases like these calls for a whole new set of investigative, legal and technical skills, says Joe Bostick. Bostick, an environmental warden assigned to Dallas, was a police officer in Bryan and Fort Worth before becoming a game warden in 1996.
“A field warden spends 99 percent of his time working at the justice-of-the-peace level,” Bostick says. “For us, it’s not uncommon to write grand jury subpoenas for business records. I had experience as a street cop writing search warrants, but these environmental search warrants are more in-depth. A lot of prosecutors have never handled environmental crimes, so there’s a lot more for us to do.”
Several years ago, Bostick investigated a memorable case with warden Kevin Davis, who late last year was promoted to lieutenant and is now an instructor at the game warden training academy. In Rockwall County, just east of Dallas, a county health agent contacted a field warden about finding deer carcasses in a creek, Davis recalls. Some of the deer still had tags on them, which were traced to Gorman’s Meat Processing in Mesquite.
“We found the meat processor had dumped the remains of more than 700 animals into that creek, which led into the water supply for Dallas,” he says. Three people were indicted on felonies for their roles in the carcass dumping. All pleaded guilty. Two got probation and the third was sent to prison. “That was a unique case,” Davis says. “While it wasn’t a huge company, it tied back into stuff the regular game wardens work on.”
Warden Marvin Tamez in Corpus Christi focuses much of his attention on the area’s huge refinery complex, but also investigates pollution cases along the Gulf Coast and into the Rio Grande Valley.
Tamez and Gray both were involved in a long-term, multi-agency criminal investigation of Koch Industries that led to a 97-count federal indictment of the company for creating excessive benzene levels in wastewater and lying to state regulators. In April 2001, Koch pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $10 million fine and $10 million to local supplemental environmental programs. While most cases are far less dramatic, Tamez says, they are no less important.
“I have a case working in the Valley involving a waste hauler,” says Tamez. “It started off with information that he was dumping septic waste and grease-trap waste out in the country. He’ll likely be prosecuted for falsifying governmental records. This is 180 degrees different from what we did as field wardens. Then we dealt with the public in a public safety capacity. Now, in our investigative role, we’re involved in long, drawn-out cases, and most of them are made without eyewitnesses but on paper, with records.”
Ultimately, his wardens from the environmental task force can go anywhere in Texas, says Gibson.
“I could get a call that says I have to be in El Paso or Brownsville tomorrow. Thank God Dumas doesn’t have any industry,” he says with a laugh.
In sheer penalty dollars, another large case the unit has made so far was against Newpark Ship Building, a barge-cleaning and repair facility on the Houston Ship Channel.
“In 1998,” Gibson says, “we got a plea agreement from Newpark on a Clean Water Act violation, and they paid $1.4 million. And it’s funny because just before this, their president received an award from the TNRCC as the environmentalist of the year.”
The environmental wardens also have pursued cases that led to the prosecution of other well-known and well-connected companies. Among them are Western Towing, a subsidiary of Kirby Inland Marine, the nation’s largest operator of inland barges, and Huntsman Chemical, the largest privately owned chemical company in the country.
Despite the political clout of some of these companies, Gibson says he never has been told by his superiors in Austin to lighten up or back off.
“I’ve had some concerns directed toward me about certain cases,” he says, “wanting to know if I was aware of certain ramifications and keeping us aware that it was politically sensitive, but we’ve never been pressured to stop an investigation.”
Gibson describes a recent case involving a tank truck operator that was one of his most labor intensive. Larry Flynn West of Houston operated a 9,400-gallon tank truck that bore the name East Houston Used Oil Company, Gibson says. He and his employees would fill the truck with waste fuel from barge operations. Some of it was ordinary gasoline; some of it was left from the washing of gasoline and chemical barges in the ship channel area. Instead of taking the waste to a licensed disposal facility, they drove the truck to a remote road, usually at night, dumped the water that had settled to the bottom of the tank and kept the leftover gasoline and chemicals to sell. The chemicals could be almost anything from the petrochemical industry that was combustible, Gibson says. One night investigators watched the tank-trunk driver dump contaminated waste water on the side of a major highway. (Cleanup crews were dispatched to clean up the discharges.)
Although West did not have a state permit, says Grahame Jones, he then sold the chemicals and contaminated gasoline to approximately 15 independent gas station operators in Harris, Fort Bend, Nueces, Galveston and Wharton counties. West paid pennies a gallon for the waste fuel, Gibson says, and sold it for 50 to 60 cents a gallon. Both buyers and sellers evaded state and federal fuel taxes in the process, Gibson says. The operation cleared tens of thousands of dollars a week for West, he says, and the adulterated fuel probably damaged many automobiles.
Grahame Jones devoted hundreds of hours to the case. “They were using about five drivers,” Jones says. “Sometimes I left the house and didn’t get back for 36 hours. We were putting in 600 miles a day following this guy, and the funny thing is, he never knew.”
Once, Jones says, the officers following the fuel truck lost track of it somewhere south of Houston. He says that he called Marvin Tamez in Corpus Christi on the slim chance that Tamez could find that beat-up old tank truck at its presumed destination.
“Marvin tracked it down,” he says. “He found this truck in downtown Corpus Christi. And that was some of the most incriminating video we got. We filmed West at service stations filling up tanks himself.”
At times, the investigation involved all six of TPWD’s environmental wardens as well as federal, state and local investigators. After two weeks of continuous 24-hour-a-day rolling surveillance, the case ended last December with the arrest of West and four other people on felony charges of fuel-tax evasion. West had served time in federal prison for a similar scheme, Gibson says. Other charges for illegal disposal of hazardous waste may follow. The service station operators who bought the tainted fuel may also face charges, Gibson says.
West’s lawyer, Paul Mewis of Houston, says his client didn’t need a state permit for his activities because he wasn’t selling gasoline or fuel to retailers, merely delivering for a third party. “Our defense is that he was only a transporter who bought this stuff and resold it,” Mewis says. “Our message is, don’t indict the transporter.” He says far from being a ringleader of illegal activity, West did not own the tank truck but was working for his son’s company.
Jones says the case was a test of the environmental wardens’ abilities, and that they demonstrated what they can do with a complex assignment when given strong backing.
“The thing that stands out is we were given the freedom to work the case and to put in all the hours it demanded,” he says. “We talked about it among ourselves, and we decided that Texas Parks and Wildlife is serious about it. Even when the case took non-environmental curves, they let us stay with it.
“And this case certainly showed that our group is capable of standing toe to toe with any specialty agency. We were there from day one, the first ones at the dance and the last ones to leave.”