The Department of Justice will investigate environmental racism in Houston

The Justice Department opened a wide-ranging investigation Friday into the city of Houston’s failure to tackle environmental racism, including rampant dumping of trash — and even dead bodies — in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods, officials said.

The investigation, prompted by hundreds of resident complaints registered by a local legal aid group, is likely to be one of the most ambitious environmental sanitation reviews the department has conducted in recent years.

The investigation will be led by the Civil Rights Division in coordination with the department’s new Office of Environmental Sanitation. It will consider whether officials in Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, have systematically discriminated against residents by allowing 11 of the 13 incinerators and landfills to be placed in the northeastern section of the city over the past several decades.

The ad is part of the Biden administration’s broader effort to address the racial disparities that have driven people of color into areas where they face far greater risks from exposure to carcinogens and other harmful pollutants, flooding, and a host of environmental pests that reduce lifespan and quality. Of the values ​​of life and property.

Many of the problems identified by Kristen Clark, the assistant attorney general who leads the civil rights division on Friday, stem from a long history of injustice rooted in racism and malicious neglect, historically at the hands of white local officials.

But some of the issues are newer: The Department of Justice plans to pay special attention to reports that residents calling Houston’s 311 system to complain about dumping and other environmental violations have been routinely ignored, Ms. Clark said during a call with reporters.

Ms Clark said that illegal waste sites in lower Houston “not only attract rodents, mosquitoes and other insects that pose health risks, but can also contaminate surface water and affect proper drainage, making areas more vulnerable to flooding.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, criticized the investigation, saying his administration had increased fines for illegal dumping and taken steps to improve conditions in the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods.

“The City of Houston was stunned and disappointed to learn about the US Department of Justice’s Unlawful Third Party Dumping Investigation,” Mr. Turner said in a statement. Despite the Justice Department’s statements, my office has not received any prior notice. This investigation is ridiculous, baseless and baseless.”

The mayor, who is Black, added that he “prioritized the needs of communities of color that have historically been under-resourced and under-served.”

The Justice Department’s investigation was prompted by a complaint from Lone Star Legal Aid, which monitored complaints from residents in the northeastern section of Houston. Ms Clark said the area had become a dumping ground for “household furniture, mattresses, tires, medical waste, rubbish, corpses and vandalized ATMs”.

“This is all part of the city’s legacy of environmental racism, but this problem has only gotten worse as the city has grown — and these neighborhoods have been deprived of the resources that richer white neighborhoods receive,” said Amy Katherine Dean, administrative attorney for the Environmental Justice Division at Legal Aid Group.

Ms. Dean said neighborhood residents have carefully documented hundreds of incidents of illegal dumping of waste in residential streets around a local landfill. She said they registered their complaints through the city’s 311 system, only to wait months for help while similar problems were addressed more quickly in wealthier neighborhoods.

“This is not a one-time problem,” she added. “The city basically allowed this community to be used as a landfill.”

The environmental disparities described by the Justice Department on Friday are woven into the city’s urban fabric, a patchwork of commercial and residential buildings. Houston has some of the least restrictive zoning laws in the country; As a result, many of the city’s petroleum processing facilities, petrochemical plants, landfills, and transportation places were placed alongside low-income or working-class residential neighborhoods.

2016 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services found that people living in the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood of Houston, a predominantly Hispanic area bordered by industrial facilities, experienced significantly higher rates of cancer and asthma than people in other, whiter areas than City. Removed from industry granules and litter.

In May, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland series of policies It aims to elevate the department’s environmental sanitation efforts from the symbolic to the substantive—including creating an office within the department responsible for addressing “the damage caused by environmental crime, pollution, and climate change.”

Even before then, the administration had begun to explore criminal and civil cases under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, beginning with an investigation of the sewage system and flood management in Lowndes County, Ala. One of the poorest and most environmentally affected areas of the country.

In most of these investigations, including the Houston investigation, Ms. Clark said, the department aims to negotiate settlements with localities to address problems found.

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