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Nature & Environment

Meet the EPA’s Top Cop

The agency is run by a bunch of business-hating liberals, right? Think again.
photography by Bud Force

The case the feds call blood  creek came to light in mid-January, a month after a hobbyist flying a camera-equipped drone aircraft took pictures of an Oak Cliff meatpacking plant apparently dumping its waste into a creek that feeds the Trinity River. His tip led to a high-profile raid, as agents from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal enforcement office joined state and local investigators to serve a search warrant. Clearly, the Columbia Packing Company was not the target of some routine environmental enforcement action. Although a lawyer for the family-owned business says an accidental sewer clog is what caused Cedar Creek to run red with pig blood, hair, and bits of flesh, the case is being investigated as a potentially deliberate and continuing practice.

That’s where Ivan Vikin comes in. As special agent in charge of the EPA’s criminal enforcement program in Dallas, Vikin is the top environmental cop in a five-state region that ranks as one of the busiest beats in the country for pollution that rises to the level of crime—meaning the willful and egregious kind.

“We’re on Blood Creek because that’s our expertise,” says Vikin, speaking in his offices on the ninth floor of the Fountain Place building. He declines to discuss details of the case but explains that his agents have done surveillance, conducted interviews, and helped gather company records and files for an ongoing investigation led by Dallas County health officials and prosecuted by the District Attorney’s Office.

Environmental compliance—like tax collection—relies mostly on the honor system. Industry monitors and reports what it emits, flushes, or dumps, and runs the risk of civil fines for violating regulations. Congress bolstered that system with criminal penalties to discourage companies from deliberately breaking major environmental laws and, in 1981, set up a criminal enforcement division that today numbers more than 200 agents nationwide.

Vikin says he’s aware he operates in a part of the country where some outspoken public officials and business leaders have, as he puts it, “negative feelings about the EPA, let alone the criminal enforcement side of EPA.” At the same time, he says he has found “there are many, many businesses that have a social conscience, that want to protect their communities.”

As for his personal views, they’re a bit out of the mold for an agency perceived to skew to the liberal side of the street. “I’m conservative in my politics and I drive a big Chevy Tahoe,” he says. When the job is checking into how and why a creek can flow red, he says, “politics has nothing to do with it.”

Vikin, a U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduate, was finishing his service tour and working alongside EPA agents in New Orleans when he decided to join. “Around that time, I was walking along the Mississippi bank with my dog, and every step we were taking this rainbow sheen would form in our tracks. I was watching my dog lapping up the water, and it made me angry,” he recalls. “You know, a majority of businesses in this country pay to comply with our environmental laws and our safety laws. Why should others not and get away with it?”

Tall and fit-looking, Vikin has a full head of black hair and a beard salted with a bit of gray. On his belt he wears a gold badge and a chunky Glock 9 mm pistol. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Upstate New York, the 46-year-old agent spent his first four years in the agency on a task force that went after polluters on the lower Mississippi River. They made cases against barge operators who cut costs by simply flushing their tanks into the river. One violator nicknamed it The Big Drip Pan. After moving into managerial positions in Charlotte and Atlanta, Vikin was promoted to head the Dallas office in 2009.

The Region 6 office, which polices the heavily industrialized Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana, has more pending cases that involve loss of life, major pollution releases, or high clean-up costs than any other. Recent or ongoing investigations run the gamut from financial fraud to standard-issue instances of willful or negligent industrial pollution.

In early February, EPA notified a Lubbock company that it committed civil violations of the Clean Air Act by defrauding a federal green energy program. An ongoing criminal investigation, which Vikin’s office is pursuing along with the U.S. Secret Service, focuses on the company’s owner, Jeff Gunselman, who is suspected of creating and selling to energy companies $40 million in phony credits while failing to produce the biodiesel fuel the credits purported to represent. In October, agents seized his 2011 Bentley and nine other vehicles, a $2.65 million Hill Country house, a $2.5 million jet, and 20 bank accounts, not including a Swiss account. In November, another car was turned over. It was a $130,000 Shelby Cobra Roller that Gunselman had given as a gift to the San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker.

In October, a refinery owned by Houston oilman Oscar Wyatt was ordered to pay a $12 million penalty, and two executives pleaded guilty to negligently placing people in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury for violating a raft of federal antipollution laws at the Lake Charles, Louisiana-based facility. “They could have been a competitive company and still invested in environmental compliance,” Vikin says. “Instead, there was no environmental department, no environmental manager. They operated however they wanted.”

Beyond evidence of extensive toxic emissions, investigators found the company used plastic kiddie pools to catch leaks, and when the pilot light to the refinery’s chimney flare broke, workers took turns firing a signal flare gun bought at Walmart at the toxic plume to try to set it alight. Wyatt, who was not charged, was sentenced to one year and one day in prison in 2008 on another matter. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to funnel kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime to acquire Iraqi crude oil.

Vikin says his 15 agents use a wide range of law enforcement tools, including informants and court-approved wiretaps and electronic surveillance, to make their cases. They have to. Vikin says that environmental crimes today feature a higher level of sophistication than in the past, with the manufacture of false reports and the like. Tips from competitors or employees often get cases started. Evidence is then found by analyzing business records or through use of computer forensics to find hidden or deleted material. In the Blood Creek raid, for instance, investigators seized 11 computer hard drives, according to court papers.

“What we’re seeing today is less of the classic environmental crimes of the ’80s and ’90s, where you’d have thousands of drums of hazardous waste being abandoned on some farmer’s land,” Vikin says. “But, then again, you have your Blood Creeks.”

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