BURNET COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Burnet County has added a new type of law enforcement officer to help tackle an age-old problem in rural Texas.
The Burnet County Constable’s office in precinct four now employs its first environmental crimes deputy. Chris Cowan began working in this position in October 2018. As the environmental crimes deputy, he investigates cases like illegal dumping, illegal burning or water contamination.
“Basically anything you can think of that would impact the environment in any way is where I’m going to be coming out and looking at it,” Cowan explained.
Precinct Four Constable Missy Bindseil submitted a grant application to try and secure funding for this position. The county ultimately received $80,610 from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. That grant money helped cover everything from salary and benefits to binoculars for the new environmental crimes deputy.
Bindseil said she wanted to create this position because her two years as constable opened her eyes to the persistent, neglected problem of illegal dumping throughout the county.
“When I got taught, hey, this is what you’re looking at, then I realized the magnitude of this,” Bindseil said. “It’s huge.”
Since Cowan became the environmental crimes deputy, he’s opened more than 30 felony cases of illegal dumping and he said more come in almost daily.
“It’s been overlooked, and it has not been able to be policed correctly just because of time,” Cowan said. “It’s not because people don’t care, not because it’s not important, but it’s just been a time issue.”
KXAN rode along Thursday with Cowan and Bindseil so that they could show what kind of situations they deal with regularly and highlight just how widespread the problem is. No matter where they went, they could identify some type of violation. At homes throughout the county, they pointed out potential felonies involving everything from piles of tires and construction materials, including lumber, discarded furniture and abandoned mobile homes.
Because problems exist seemingly everywhere, the question becomes where do they even begin? Right now prosecution is seen as a last resort, according to Cowan. He and Bindseil said they first try working with people to address the problem before pursuing charges.
“We’re not going to come into it and try to put a boot to your throat and try to make you do this,” Cowan said. “I would much rather give you a hand out and help you up rather than have to work it out through a judicial gateway.”
However, that kind of assistance can only last so long if people are unwilling to do their part.
“Unfortunately, you have to put the punishment with the crime,” Cowan said. “We have actually issued two felony warrants for particular dump sites. Now, obviously, that is not the direction we want to go. I’d much rather help you abate the issue, clean it and make it nice for everybody. You can’t do it in jail.”
Despite how monumental this task may seem at the moment, Bindseil said tackling these issues one case at a time will only better the county and surrounding area.
“I think it will do nothing but raise the economy, increase property values and just make it a healthier environment for everybody,” Bindseil said. “We don’t have to worry about this going into the waterways, this going into the soil or people’s wells.”
Other rural cities and counties are looking at their work as a kind of pilot program because the problem with environmental crimes is not Burnet County’s alone to deal with.
“We’re like proud parents watching our little program flourish,” Bindseil said. “What we do is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.”
“I would like to see it grow to the point to where maybe we could help the other counties and still maintain our integrity and keep everything going in the direction that we have it going,” Cowan added.
A deadline is approaching later this month for another cycle of grants. Burnet County officials plan to apply again for additional funding so that it can keep Cowan as environmental crimes deputy because his work is far from done.