Pollution Story Results in Changes at City Hall

Oct 18, 2004  •  Post A Comment

On Thanksgiving Day 2003, at least 2,500 gallons of liquid asphalt poured out of a tanker owned by the city of Dallas. The asphalt flowed down a city street, traveled around a corner and seeped into a storm drain. Officials from the city’s storm water, hazardous material and streets departments spread absorbent sand over the liquid goop, positioned orange cones around the resulting mix and left.

When reporter Paul Adrian of Fox-owned KDFW-TV arrived the following Monday and learned of the spill and how it was mishandled in violation of anti-pollution rules, a story he had been working on for the past month became much bigger. It eventually led to drastic changes in the city of Dallas, including the creation of a new department to improve accountability for and knowledge of environmental issues.

Mr. Adrian had been reporting on the city’s approach to “storm water” violations for more than a month before the asphalt spill. What he found was that the city was one of the worst offenders when it came to allowing dirty substances to reach the storm water drains that funnel water to creeks, lakes and rivers. To top it off, the city regularly assessed fines on other transgressors but hadn’t improved conditions at its facilities, nor had it paid its own fines.

Mr. Adrian’s work in covering the repeated violations became one of the most visible examples over the past year of the impact a TV station can have in driving change through its reporting. Shortly after the ooze of liquid asphalt reached the Trinity River in Dallas, the city began laying plans to establish an office of environmental quality to change its ways. The department became operational in April.

The KDFW story began when Mr. Adrian learned of the city’s violations and skirting of fines last fall. He explained that the city of Dallas is the regulatory authority for Clean Water Act Laws within the city limits. A team of inspectors working for the city is charged with catching violations, particularly of the set of rules known as storm water pollution laws.

“If pollution runs into ground and a rainstorm comes, it washes into creeks and rivers and lakes as storm water pollution,” he said. “Anything that might leave your facility and pollute a water body [is] covered by the storm water rules.”

Anything running off a facility that’s not clean water, such as soap suds from a car wash, could potentially pollute storm water. “So the inspectors work for the city, whose job it is to inspect all these facilities. What these inspectors found was perhaps the worst violator was the city itself and the city had a double standard,” Mr. Adrian said. “Whereas they would sometimes be very tough on noncity entities, they were prohibited by top managers, the very top of the food chain, from writing citations [on] the city itself. They were told by city management not to assess fines at all.”

That’s the story that Mr. Adrian began covering in October of last year, including a piece on how the city got a judgment against the owner of a small carpet store for $240,000 for violations but looked the other way on oil leaking from street sweepers and sanitation trucks at the city service centers, Mr. Adrian said.

“Inspectors caught this behavior one to two years before we did our story and wrote it up repeatedly at all the service centers where they store the trucks,” he said. “They’d keep writing it up and shooting photos and saying, `You need to get this fixed.”‘

That was the backdrop of the story and the coverage Mr. Adrian had done before Thanksgiving.

When Mr. Adrian learned a few days after the holiday about the asphalt spill, a KDFW crew began shooting as the city cleaned up the mess. But Mr. Adrian learned from the station’s helicopter surveying the scene aerially that the sludge had traveled downstream more than a mile to a huge drainpipe about 12 feet wide and was draining into the Trinity River. “The helicopter said it looked like the Exxon Valdez, and the city hadn’t looked at all to see it was draining into the river,” he said.

Mayor Takes Notice

The state of Texas then learned of the violation and issued a notice. That’s when the mayor took notice, leading to the creation of the office of environmental quality, whose job is to ensure city employees know what the rules are and are following them. The city hired 10 employees to beef up the storm water inspection team and another 10 to staff the office of environmental quality.

The Environmental Protection Agency also got involved, and the EPA’s civil case against the city has now been turned over to the Department of Justice, Mr. Adrian said. The station plans to air an update on the situation in November.

Coverage is ongoing because the issue isn’t going away, despite the changes. Companies and cities still have an incentive to pollute because it’s cheaper to break the law if they don’t get caught than to clean up properly, Mr. Adrian said. “You absolutely have to keep on it.” Beth Parke, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists, said the KDFW work sends a message to TV news professionals that investigative reporting, source cultivation and document searching on issues of substance are alive and well.

“It’s a classic piece of investigative reporting over a long period of time and it had major impact on the city of Dallas and the EPA,” she said. “It’s a story that shows how important it is that journalists preserve and make use of our citizenry’s First Amendment rights of access to government records, in the public interest.”

Along with Mr. Adrian, Joe Ellis produced the piece and Paul Beam served as the photographer.