STAFF WRITER JARED FIELDS
Chris Cowan followed his GPS to a location where he needed to investigate an environmental crime.
The device took him to the wrong spot, but that didn’t matter.
The “wrong” spot still had enough illegally dumped material to classify as a State Jail Felony crime.
Once a site like that is located, it can’t be ignored. Cowan added it to his growing list then went to the location he meant to visit in the first place.
Such is the life of the Environmental Crimes deputy.
Cowan, who was hired Oct. 1, 2018, is the first environmental officer hired by Burnet County with Department of Justice grant funds.
Since then, Cowan and Burnet County Precinct 4 Constable Missy Bindseil have filed more than three dozen illegal dumping cases.
“If we were super aggressive on going and seeking this stuff out?” Bindseil asked out loud.
“It’d probably triple. Easy,” Cowan answered.
Cowan said there is no “typical” illegal dumping case. One might expect toxic chemicals dumped over a rural bridge, but that is rarely what Cowan deals with.
To qualify as a State Jail Felony case, the highest degree for illegal dumping, the site must consist of at least 1,000 pounds, or 200 cubic feet, of material. Higher charges can only be made as enhancements after a previous conviction.
Cowan said his goal is to work with offenders to get sites cleaned up without further action needed.
“Education is very important, and I try to be more educational than confrontational,” he said. “Self-abatement is ultimately what we want.”
That means spending time following up with landowners in person.
“I have to be there or it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said.
With the dedicated officer now in place in Burnet County, many of the problems Cowan finds stretch back decades, or generations.
“Even though things have been done a certain way for years, there are laws against it,” he said. “There have always been laws against it, but now we have the manpower to enforce it, and we are enforcing it.”
Bindseil and Cowan find pre- and post-construction materials, steel trusses, pre-treated wood, junk cars and tires, concrete, old machinery, and metal and petroleum-based products.
Those items leach chemicals into groundwater, something Cowan sees as a health risk for future generations.
“For their health and their children’s health and the future of our county,” he said.
Cowan said the learning curve has been immense, despite his background.
He was a fire marshal before taking this job and has worked most of his career in law enforcement.
From his first day on Oct. 1 to now has been like “kindergarten to first year of college, overnight,” he said.
“It is that much.”
The 2016 version of Texas Environmental Laws that Bindseil and Cowan use has more than 1,000 pages. And they refer to it, or attorneys across the state who know Texas environmental law, on a daily basis.
Unlike drug crimes, for example, environmental crime laws have some ambiguity.
Burnet County Attorney Eddie Arredondo said changes to the laws are needed.
For this legislative session, however, Burnet County is not yet lobbying for those changes.
“Let’s focus on ourselves right now and make sure we’re going in right direction and doing the right things,” Arredondo said. “Then, with a little bit of experience behind us, we can approach those legislators.”
With so much work to do at the moment, Cowan said it can feel like an uphill battle.
“But it’s next year that we’re working for,” he said.
Once the enforcement is in place and the education takes hold, the path forward will become clearer, according to Cowan.
“There is hope. We may not be able to see it just yet from our vantage point, but there is hope,” he said.