Reporter’s Notebook: How I Got the Story

Reporter’s Notebook: How I Got the Story

In the spring of 2016, a mutual friend introduced me to a former Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) employee. The ex-staffer had recently quit their job at the agency in part because of the way it treated small business owners. Working at the environmental agency’s enforcement department, the former employee had frequently fielded calls from upset gas station owners, many of them immigrants. They were being fined thousands of dollars for “small things,” the ex-state worker told me, and would beg and plead to have their penalties reduced. That conversation planted the seed of an idea in my head. Was TCEQ being overly harsh in its treatment of these small business owners?

It at least seemed plausible. A quick look at the agency’s yearly enforcement reports posted on their website revealed that 20 to 35 percent of its caseload involved gas stations. I set out to test my hypothesis by requesting data from the agency under Texas public information law. Initially, I asked for every violation and subsequent enforcement case the agency had pursued in the last three years. As I began analyzing the data, it became clear that the agency did in fact fine gas stations at a high rate and that their penalties, in total, were similar to the amount that TCEQ had levied against large air polluters such as petrochemical plants and refineries. It was fairly common knowledge in Texas environmental circles that the agency very rarely fined companies for exceeding pollution limits. But the fact that the fines for these larger corporations and small business owners were in the same ballpark came as a surprise.

Since the agency sometimes took years to close out enforcement cases, I needed a larger dataset going further back in time. I asked the agency for records from 2009 to 2017 and received an Excel sheet with more than 300,000 rows. Excel has limitations and I knew at that point that I needed to sharpen my data skills. So, I approached my editor at The Nation Institute, which had selected me as an Ida B. Wells fellow and was generously supporting my work. She sent me to a data bootcamp run by the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, where I learned the data-crunching programming language SQL and Microsoft Access. Then, over a few weeks, I hand-coded more than 10,000 violations. By cleaning up and organizing the mountain of data, I was able to systematically analyze whether gas station owners were being penalized for recordkeeping violations or more serious offenses, such as leaks and spills.

At the same time, I called dozens of gas station owners who had been fined by TCEQ and drove to meet them at their stores. I heard the same story over and over again. Sitting at their cramped offices and while proudly showing me around their gas stations, they told me about how they’d come to the country with hardly anything, not knowing English and bought their first gas station after years of saving up. Now, they were being unfairly penalized by the state agency, they said. Most of them said they’d never thought of fighting TCEQ because they didn’t have the time or the resources and were worried about retaliation.

The gas station owners’ experiences stood in stark contrast to the experiences of refineries and petrochemical plants such as those owned by Valero, Exxon, Citgo and others in Houston and Corpus Christi. On the rare occasions when these multibillion dollar companies were penalized, they fought back and often succeeded in having their fines reduced.  When I looked at the paperwork the agency filed when the cases were appealed to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, I saw that the fines were sometimes reduced by 50 percent or more.

Along the way, I also found TCEQ inspectors who spoke off the record and confirmed the gas station owners’ experiences. It turned out that the inspectors were facing pressure to churn through gas station cases quickly. Decisions about whether to fine gas station owners were also made based on the agency’s penalty policy and were out of their hands, they said.

For the most part, the story had been in plain sight all along. Members of the retail gasoline industry had been complaining about TCEQ’s enforcement activity for years, and the numbers in the agency’s reports were important clues. But, ultimately, the gas station owners’ experiences, along with the agency’s own data and current and former employees, helped reveal the full scope of the story.