As an FBI agent then as an assistant federal prosecutor, Malcolm Bales has investigated crooked judges in Chicago and drug dealers in Texas. Now, as the U.S. Attorney in Beaumont, he’s working amid one of the nation’s biggest petrochemical complexes.
Bales says he’s finding there are plenty of criminal pollution cases. But not the agents to pursue them.
“We lack the appropriate number of investigators. EPA (the federal environmental regulator) is struggling to meet the caseload. There are not enough agents,” Bales told StateImpact.
“In fact, when we have cases worked over here in the Beaumont area — where we believe there is a significant number of unaddressed environmental violations — those agents have to come from Houston in every instance.”
Bales said the FBI used to work environmental cases but with changing priorities in the post-9/11 world, he says pollution cases are now way down the list. FBI Houston Division spokesperson Shauna Dunlap agreed, saying agents usually get involved only in big pollution cases like the Deepwater Horizon spill.
One recent case showed how his staff had to tackle a crime that was a bit out of their comfort zone.
Learning How a Chemical Can Kill
“We didn’t know a whole lot about hydrogen sulfide.”
They’d quickly learn that hydrogen sulfide is a deadly gas. What would take longer to figure out was why two truck drivers died within four months of one another. Both worked for Port Arthur Chemical and Environmental Services and both were hauling what investigators said were tanker loads containing the gas. What eventually would make it a crime was how the gas was being transported.
“The truck drivers were moving this stuff and it’s unclear whether they knew they were transporting hydrogen sulfide. In one instance, the guy was not wearing a body alarm, was not masked up, and literally was dead almost from the moment he released the valve on the truck,” Bales told StateImpact.
Why would such critical information not be known to the drivers? According to prosecutors, the company put “profit above safety” as it sought to dispose of wastewater containing the hydrogen sulfide.
A disposal site in Winnie had supposedly refused to take a load of the wastewater because of what it contained. So according to prosecutors, the company falsified transportation documents to make it look like the load came from a site in Houston, not from its facility in Port Arthur.
The difference apparently was that listing the Houston site as the source of the load meant the wastewater would appear on the manifest as not containing hydrogen sulfide. The company also allegedly failed to attach placards on the tanker trucks that would have warned that the gas was onboard.
Earlier this month at the federal courthouse in Beaumont, the owner of the company, Matt Bowman, 41 years old and from Houston, pleaded guilty to violating federal workplace safety laws and to falsifying a truck manifest. He could face prison time when sentenced later this summer.
Contrary to the idea that the government lacks the resources to pursue pollution cases, Bowman said in a phone conversation with StateImpact that he felt the government spared no expense.
“If you’re worried they’re not regulating enough, don’t. Because in my case, they were all over it,” Bowman said.
Bowman wouldn’t comment on the specifics of his guilty plea, but said previous media articles on his case were “incorrect.” He said he started his chemical disposal business “from scratch.”
“I thought I was going to change the world,” Bowman said.
“I’m glad Mr. Bowman took responsibility. He did the right thing,” said U.S. Attorney Bales.