Local TV Investigates Who Is Polluting the Water: A Series of News Reports Found City Agencies Ignoring Their Own Regulations and Illegally Polluting Water in Dallas

By Adrian, Paul | Nieman Reports, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Local TV Investigates Who Is Polluting the Water: A Series of News Reports Found City Agencies Ignoring Their Own Regulations and Illegally Polluting Water in Dallas


Adrian, Paul, Nieman Reports


"You can't pollute something that's already polluted," proclaimed Jimmy Wayne Lashley from the stand at his trial, as he tried to stay out of jail in January 2005. "Who's going to drink that water?" The water Lashley was referring to was in the Trinity River as it flowed through Dallas, Texas.

Almost exactly one year earlier, KDFW producer Joe Ellis, videographer Paul Beam and I caught Lashley as he dumped hundreds of gallons of portable toilet sewage into a tributary of the river. And we caught him in grand style. Beam, wearing full camouflage, walked up the creek bed prior to Lashley's arrival and hid on the opposite bank. Ellis and I, along with videographer Phil Fleming, sat in a truck outside the Alliance Sanitation Company's headquarters. Hovering overhead, another KDFW videographer and our helicopter pilot circled, waiting for a moment we all knew would happen.

We knew it would happen because we had witnessed the dumping three times previously. As usual, on that cold January morning, Lashley was punctual. He used an old Dodge pickup to pull a 500-gallon tank deep into the lot, where it couldn't be easily seen. Once there, he threw the truck into reverse and backed down ruts created on countless previous trips to the edge of a muddy overhang that dropped down to the creek.

Beam whispered into his cell phone, "he's getting out the hose ... he's hooking up the hose." And finally Beam told us, "he's starting the motor. Come now! Come now!"

Our car roared through the open gates as the helicopter came down toward the site to get the best possible pictures of a stomach-turning operation. A chunky green liquid spewed out of the four-inch wide hose and splashed into the creek.

His pump's motor made such a racket that it had deafened Lashley. I walked up behind him and got close enough to tap him on the shoulder before he realized the gig was up.

I identified myself as a reporter and asked Lashley what he was doing. He clammed up, but much later he explained to a courtroom jury that "natural purification" would make the material less harmful to the environment. He also said coworkers told him it was an "industry practice" to dump the waste into a creek.

Lashley received as a sentence five months jail time on a case built almost entirely on our reporting.

Tracking the Polluters

Our investigative team at KDFW, a local Fox owned and operated affiliate in Dallas, had become adept at finding polluters. There is a lot said about how bad water pollution was before the Clean Water Act, and since I wasn't reporting then, I can't make a comparison to what we are seeing today. It amazes me how blatantly people still pollute our waters. The Alliance Sanitation lot was not along some secluded rural stream. Rather it sat deep within city limits and shared a border with an interstate highway. Drivers exiting the highway at the right moment could have witnessed a dump in progress.

Our caught-in-the-act video, which we aired as part of our investigation of these illegal dumping practices, was dramatic. But Lashley was not close to being the worst polluter exposed in our news station's ongoing series of reports, called "Dirty Water, Dirty Secrets."

A question well worth asking is why a local television news team and not environmental regulators had such success in revealing these polluters. One needs only to examine the regulators themselves to find the answer. What we found is that the quality of regulation depended highly on the identity of the polluter.

In big cities like Dallas, it is the responsibility of city officials to control the amount of pollutants that enter storm water drains and flow into creeks. This work requires both public education and law enforcement. Federal storm water laws cover just about every kind of water pollution that could occur within a city, both from direct sources (people intentionally dumping a contaminant into a storm drain or creek, as Lashley did) and indirect (from pollutants that wash off a company's property during a storm). …

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