Don’t dump used motor oil—or anything else—in Santa Rosa. This city of 175,000 has a full-time environmental cop.
What environmental crimes do you investigate?
Businesses illegally disposing of hazardous waste into the sewer system, landfills, streams, the ground; construction companies that don’t take proper erosion control under the Fish and Game codes. I have the authority to issue citations or make a physical arrest.
I know a lot of environmentalists out there who wish their police department had an environmental crimes unit. How did you get started?
In the early 1990s, one of our lieutenants went to a command college back east where he had to develop a project. He decided to develop an environmental crimes unit in a mid-sized police department. So a couple of us went to school back there in Glynco, Georgia, where we learned the federal regs. Prior to that I was a traffic department investigator. At that time, if there was a spill or some kind of environmental complaint, we would investigate the complaint, then go back to our primary assignment.
Four years ago, some creative funding allowed us to create a full-time position. I know of no other municipal police department that has one. None of my salary comes from the police department— 75 percent of it is paid by the Santa Rosa sewage treatment plant; the other 25 percent comes from the Department of Public Works’ stormwater program.
What are the majority of your cases?
Illegal disposal of hazardous waste.
Can you give me an example?
We had a plating shop in town. Plating is highly toxic, very dangerous. They used a boiler to heat their water. The boiler developed a leak. Instead of reporting it, they allowed it to drain into a floor drain. Hexavalent chromium was going into the sewer system. Hazardous wastes like that have to be properly stored and labeled, and they have to be taken to a licensed disposal facility.
How did you know this was happening?
I found out that their water usage had more than tripled in a very short amount of time. It’s long been known in the commercial industry that if you can dilute something enough, it’ll go undetected.
So you got suspicious?
The Department of Toxics has a web page where you can check on hazardous waste manifests. When you dispose of a hazardous waste, you’re required to fill out a manifest. With this company, I found their manifests over the years, and at one point they just dropped off—that’s another clue. At the same time, their water use increased. It told me that something had changed.
I did some discreet sewer sampling and found inordinately high levels of hexavalent chromium. I got a search warrant and found evidence of illegal discharge.
What are other ways you find out somebody’s doing something wrong?
If I’m suspicious of a business, I’ll look in the garbage, look at what’s on the ground around the business. Often we’ll receive tips from disgruntled employees.
What other kinds of crimes are there?
I’ll find auto body paint shops where employees are doing the dry sanding outside—a lot of material that comes off the cars is hazardous waste. When it gets on the ground, it gets washed off into streams. The other common call I get is about homebuilders building subdivisions without erosion control measures in place. All of that excess silt washes into the creeks.
What are the punishments for environmental crimes?
Most of the time, they get fined. A better incentive is having the person responsible arrested—if you can show that the individual knowingly participates or directs people in the act. A lot of times when a business illegally discharges, it’s lack of knowledge. The auto sanders doing work outside—sometimes they just need to be educated.
How do you change people’s behavior?
You can have all of the brochures in the world, and there are some people who will read them and want to do the right thing. But then there are businesses that routinely build in getting fined as a cost of doing business. There will also be people who will knowingly and willingly break the law.
What has been most satisfying to you?
About four or five years ago I started looking at some of the construction sites in town. I showed up at one site to talk to the job foreman—I was in a Chevy Suburban environmental crime car with the traditional star on the doors. I started talking to him about what would happen if discharge came off the site. I told him we could issue a citation or I could arrest him. Within about four hours, he was in the city manager’s office asking why he was being threatened by this policeman. That year I worked five or six erosion control cases—they were all successful in that the local DA took action. The following year, I didn’t have a single case, so something’s working.
Do other cops think you’re a lightweight?
No… I have no lack of work. I work these cases the same as I would a burglary. I know it’s not the norm for your local everyday policeman to investigate environmental crimes, but it should be. Those laws are there for a reason.