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Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, speaks during a news conference on August 5, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

DOJ Opens Environmental Racism Probe Into Illegal Dumping of Trash and 'Dead Bodies' in Houston

The city's Black Democratic mayor vowed to cooperate but said that "this investigation is absurd, baseless, and without merit."

Jessica Corbett

The Biden administration on Friday announced an investigation into how the city of Houston, Texas responds to reports of illegal dumping of everything from trash to human remains in communities of color.

"Illegal dumping is a long-standing environmental justice issue. And... it often disproportionately burdens Black and Latino communities."

Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), said in a Friday speech that the probe will determine whether the city complies with the Title VI nondiscrimination requirements of the Civil Rights Acts.

"The investigation is prompted by a complaint sent to the Justice Department from Lone Star Legal Aid," she explained. "The complaint alleges that the city of Houston engages in race and national origin discrimination against a predominately Black and Latino area in Northeast Houston."

Clarke said that the complaint claims residents of the area "frequently make calls complaining about the illegal dumping of household furniture, mattresses, tires, medical waste, trash, dead bodies, and vandalized ATM machines and other items dumped and abandoned in their community."

"The complaint alleges that the city's denial of services, failure to enforce municipal codes and permit restrictions, and failure to adequately and equitably respond to illegal dumpsite concerns and service requests threaten the health and safety of Black and Latino people in Houston," she added. "These alleged acts also devalue the real property of Black and Latino Houstonians in violation of Title VI."

The probe will focus on the Houston Police Department as well as the city's 311 system and neighborhoods and solid waste management departments, which all receive federal financial assistance. Houston residents can call 311 "for information on city services and to report nonemergency concerns."

"Earlier today we sent the mayor's office a request for information and documents," Clarke said, noting that the probe will also include community interviews and a review of the 311 system to "determine whether there are racial disparities in response times to complaints made from Black and Latino communities vis-à-vis white communities."

Clarke also put the probe into a broader context:

Illegal dumping is a long-standing environmental justice issue. And like many other environmental justice issues, it often disproportionately burdens Black and Latino communities. Illegal dumpsites not only attract rodents, mosquitoes, and other vermin that pose health risks, but they can also contaminate surface water and impact proper drainage, making areas more susceptible to flooding... No one in the United States should be exposed to risk of illness and other serious harm because of ineffective solid waste management or inadequate enforcement programs.

For decades, environmental justice advocates have brought attention to the disproportionate burden faced specifically by communities of color in Houston from illegal dumping. Through this investigation, we will follow the facts and if necessary, work to institute the reforms necessary to address these long-standing concerns.

Democratic Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a lengthy statement that the city "was stunned and disappointed" to learn about the probe and "despite the DOJ's pronouncements, my office received no advanced notice."

"This investigation is absurd, baseless, and without merit," Turner declared, while vowing that the city "will cooperate with DOJ."

Turner, who is Black, asserted that "from day one, the city of Houston under my administration has prioritized the needs of communities of color that are historically under-resourced and underserved." He highlighted a recent doubling of the fine for illegal dumping and the installation of surveillance cameras, and said that "the city follows up on 311 complaints about illegal dumping and aggressively pursues those responsible."

"This DOJ investigation is a slap in the face to the city and the many people who diligently work to address illegal dumping daily and prevent environmental injustice," he added.

The mayor also slammed the DOJ for inaction on other environmental justice issues in the region and expressed gratitude for Congressman Al Green (D-Texas), whose office said Friday that it fully supports Turner's "efforts to ensure all Houstonians live in a safe and healthy environment, as well as their cooperation with the rush-to-judgment announcement of an investigation that does the city of Houston a disservice."

The Houston investigation is part of a broader effort at the DOJ to expand its work on environmental injustice through a new enforcement strategy and the first-ever Office of Environmental Justice, both announced in May.

Todd Kim, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, said Friday that President Joe Biden "has made achieving environmental justice for all Americans a priority of his administration, and the Justice Department is answering the call."

After noting the new strategy and office, Kim said the Houston probe "exemplifies the department's commitment to alleviating disproportionate environmental burdens borne all too often by communities of color, low-income communities, and tribal communities."

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