Last week, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke announced that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is launching an investigation into whether the City of Houston is complying with the nondiscrimination requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in handling illegal dumping in black and Latino communities.
“The investigation we are launching today will be focused on the city’s response to reports of illegal dumping, including the 311 Houston Service Helpline system,” Clarke said in a speech on Friday.
Lone Star Legal Aid, a non-profit law firm providing services to low-income and underserved populations, filed the complaint on behalf of the predominantly black and Latino Trinity/Houston Gardens Super Neighborhood 48 in the northeastern part of the city.
According to a statement from the DOJ, residents 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 DOJ says data compiled by the city shows high concentrations of illegal dumping occur in communities of color, and the placement of 11 of 13 City-owned landfills and incinerators in black communities may further exacerbate the problem.
The investigation conducted by the DOJ’s civil rights division, in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, will focus on Houston’s Department of Neighborhoods, Police Department, Solid Waste Management Department, and 311 system, “all of which play central roles in the City’s receipt of, and response to, concerns and service requests related to illegal dumpsites.”
“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,” said Clarke. “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.”
Clarke’s announcement seemed to have caught Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner by surprise last week, and he vigorously repudiated the DOJ’s action.
“This morning, the City of Houston was stunned and disappointed to learn about the investigation into illegal dumping by third parties launched by the U.S. Department of Justice,” Turner said in a statement. “Despite the DOJ’s pronouncements, my office received no advanced notice. This investigation is absurd, baseless, and without merit.”
Turner added that his administration had prioritized the needs of communities of color that are historically under-resourced and underserved, doubled the fine for illegal dumping in the city, and installed surveillance cameras to catch and prosecute offenders.
Turner then lashed out at the DOJ for failing to take action against the Texas General Land Office for discriminating against the City in distributing Hurricane Harvey mitigation funds. But the mayor did pledge to fully cooperate with the investigation, saying the city had taken proactive measures to address environmental health and safety issues “by leveraging public and private resources.”
“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,” said Turner.
Most illegal dumping offenses are misdemeanors under Texas law, but larger amounts, and those disposed of for commercial purposes or contained in a closed barrel or drum, are state jail felonies.
Houston has struggled to control dumping and manage city trash and recycling services for many years. In 2021, the city hired a new solid waste director and offered $3,000 signing bonuses to alleviate a shortage of garbage truck drivers. Back in 2019, KHOU news caught city Solid Waste Management Trucks collecting both standard and recycling containers into the same trucks, and later reported that at least 2.6 million pounds of recycling had been dumped in a landfill rather than taken to the city’s $100 million recycling facility.
In 2021, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan tapped Turner to serve on the EPA’s Local Government Advisory Committee, which advises the federal agency with recommendations on policy. Turner said he looked forward to contributing to the development of more “effective and equitable policies and programs.”
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.