The US Justice Department (DOJ) announced the opening of an investigation Friday to determine whether the City of Houston, Texas has discriminated against minorities in a predominantly Black and Latino area by failing to enforce illegal dumping restrictions.
According to a complaint by Lone Star Legal Aid, the City has not adequately responded to calls from residents in a northeast Houston community that “household furniture, mattresses, tires, medical waste, trash, dead bodies, and vandalized ATM machines” have been illegally dumped in their community. According to the complaint, the City has not properly enforced municipal codes and permit restrictions for decades.
The investigation will look into the city’s responses to reports of illegal dumping and determine whether the city has been complying with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The DOJ plans to review records of the 311 Houston Service Helpline system to determine if there are racial disparities in response times to different communities, as well as conduct interviews with residents, officials, and other stakeholders. The investigation will be jointly conducted by the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ and the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas.
US Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke stated of the investigation:
Illegal dumping is a long-standing environmental justice issue [that] often disproportionately burdens Black and Latino communities…Illegal dumpsites not only attract rodents, mosquito and other vermin that pose health risks, but they can also contaminate surface water and impact proper drainage, making areas more susceptible to flooding. Illegal dumpsites denies residents the ability to enjoy their communities and strips vulnerable communities of the ability to lead their lives with full dignity and respect.
In response to the probe, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner stated that “the City of Houston was stunned and disappointed” to learn about the investigation and that it 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.”
This investigation follows a trend of prioritization of environmental justice and civil rights. In May, the DOJ created the Office of Environmental Justice and issued a memorandum initiating a comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy to address discriminatory public health and environmental impacts to poor and minority communities.