Here’s something I hadn’t realized about the Travis County District Attorney. In addition to investigating and prosecuting state level corruption cases (including everyone’s favorite former House Majority Leader), the Travis Co DA’s office has also been responsible for prosecuting criminal environmental cases across the state since 1994 under the Texas Water Code and Texas Health and Safety Code.
Rosemary Lehmberg, the current DA, has been particularly effective at going after large industrial polluters. Since 2009, a special prosecutor, Patty Robertson, has been assigned to the investigation of these cases through a grant from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency responsible for granting environmental permits and handing out fines for non-compliance. Since the creation of the environmental crimes unit, the DA’s office has opened 51 cases, handed down 12 convictions and collected over $3.2 million in fines.
The biggest case they’ve tried so far was against Gulf Chemical and Metallurgical Corporation and its former Environmental and Health Services Manager, Rajani Vadlamudi, for the unlawful discharge of a pollutant into state waters. Gulf Chem was ordered to pay a $2.75 million fine and Vadlamudi was additionally fined and placed on deferred adjudication.
In an interview with the Austin Chronicle, Lehmberg described the strategy behind these cases.
I really do believe that even though sometimes we go for an individual – like it might be the main engineer or the president of the company for individual responsibility – mostly what these folks recognize is where it hits them in the pocketbook. And I think that we’re going to end up being more and more aggressive about that. The more we do these, the more we learn that we can assess bigger fines, because that’s what’s punitive to a big company.
Lehmberg will be facing a tough re-election campaign against former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge, Charlie Baird. Her commitment to environmental justice is definitely worth noting in the lead up to Democratic primary (if it ever happens that is).