Environmental crimes can impact our water supply and land for decades. To catch offenders, a special Texas task force uses sophisticated tools to catch criminals in the act. KVUE Defender Andy Pierrotti got an exclusive look at what investigators use.
Reginald Parker had no idea cameras were recording his every move when he parked his car in a wooded area in East Austin in 2005.
When he got out of his car, it didn’t take long for him to take out stolen cooper wire out of the trunk and then catch it on fire to burn off the insulation.
The state convicted Parker of illegal hazardous waste disposal and a jury sentenced him to six years in prison.
Captain Jonathan Gray helped capture Parker. The state Parks and Wildlife investigator used a tracking device to follow Parker's car. The cameras that recorded Parker were hidden in trees.
"It was very hard to follow him, so we had to utilize different electronic methods to get a little closer to him," explained Gray.
Parker’s case highlights the sophisticated tools the state's Environmental Enforcement Task Force use to catch criminals. It's a coalition of local, state and federal agencies working together to protect the environment.
“The criminals are evolving, so we have to evolve as well," Gray said.
Hidden cameras are some of the best tools. Some cameras can text video or pictures to an investigator's phone if it senses movement.
Other cameras detect heat. For example, it’s nearly impossible to see gas leaking from fuel stations. Using a camera called the Flir, you can easily see the plumes of gas in the air or chemicals illegally discharged in water.
"So, if you want to see the discharge on the water, we can hit it with a Flir. You can tell the difference if there is a discharge, you can actually see it flowing in," said Gray.
The state also uses a robot owned by Austin's Water Department. It helps the state identify where offenders illegally discharge waste into city drains. The robot is water-proof. It has a camera that can zoom, and it has the potential to travel thousands of feet underground.
"So, it's a big help when you can put a camera and run it up that line and say the third junction up is where we are having this contamination," Gray said.
Patty Robertson is the dedicated prosecutor for the task force. Robertson says the evidence obtained with these high-tech gadgets helps the state win cases.
In one case, the state used a plane to fly above an illegal dumping site to take pictures. In 2011, the state charged the company that leased that land with 26 counts of illegal dumping and fined it $200,000.
Since joining the task force in 2009, the state has collected more than $5 million in fines from environmental criminals.
"For that amount of fine money to be collected in the last three years is unheard of," Robertson said.
Since 1993, Texas has sentenced offenders to more than 188 years in prison for environmental crimes. It has also collected more than $7 million in restitution to help clean up contaminated land and water.
How to report environmental crimes:
Regional Environmental Task Force: 512-916-6185
Illegal Dumping Hotline: 1-877-NO DUMPS