Justice Department to investigate environmental racism in Houston

know about Justice Department to investigate environmental racism in Houston

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

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

The investigation will be conducted by the civil rights division in coordination with the department’s new office of environmental justice. It will examine whether officials in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, systematically discriminated against residents by allowing 11 of 13 incinerators and landfills to be placed in the northeast section of the city over the past few decades.

The announcement is part of the broader effort by the Biden administration to address the racial disparities that have relegated people of color to areas where they face much greater risk of exposure to carcinogens and other harmful pollutants, flooding, and a host of environmental blights that they reduce life expectancy, quality of life, and property values.

Many of the problems outlined Friday by Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general who heads the civil rights division, stem from a decades-long history of injustice rooted in racism and malign neglect, historically at the hands of white local officials.

But some problems are more recent: The Justice Department plans to pay special attention to reports that residents who call Houston’s 311 system to complain about spills and other environmental violations have been routinely ignored, Clarke said during a call with journalists.

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Illegal dumps in lower Houston “not only attract rodents, mosquitoes, and other vermin that pose a health risk, but can also contaminate surface water and affect proper drainage, making areas more susceptible.” to flooding,” Clarke said.

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 of the investigation into illegal third-party dumping launched by the US Department of Justice,” Mr. Turner said in a statement. “Despite pronouncements from the Department of Justice, my office received no advance notice. This investigation is absurd, unfounded and without merit.”

The mayor, who is black, added that he had “prioritized the needs of communities of color that are historically under-resourced and underserved.”

The Justice Department investigation was prompted by a complaint from Lone Star Legal Aid, which has monitored complaints from residents in the northeast section of Houston. The area has become a dumping ground for “household furniture, mattresses, tires, medical waste, garbage, dead bodies and smashed ATMs,” Clarke said.

Amy Catherine Dinn, managing attorney for the legal aid group’s environmental justice division, said, “This is all part of the city’s legacy of environmental racism, but that problem has gotten worse as the city has grown, and these neighborhoods they have been deprived of the resources that wealthier white neighborhoods receive.”

Ms. Dinn said that residents of the neighborhood had carefully documented hundreds of incidents of illegal dumping on residential streets around a local dump. They have logged their complaints through the city’s 311 system, only to wait months for help, while similar problems have been addressed much more quickly in more affluent neighborhoods, she said.

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“This is not an isolated problem,” he added. “Basically, the city has allowed this community to be used as a landfill.”

The environmental disparities outlined 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 oil processing facilities, petrochemical plants, landfills, and transportation lots have been located next to low-income or working-class residential neighborhoods.

A 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 Latino area bordered by industrial facilities, suffered significantly higher rates of cancer and asthma than people in other, whiter parts of the city. removed from the sand and garbage industry.

In May, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced a series of policies intended to elevate the department’s environmental justice efforts from the symbolic to the substantive, including the creation of an office within the department responsible for addressing “harm caused by criminal offenses.” environment, pollution and climate change.

Even before that, the department had begun exploring criminal and civil cases under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, beginning with an investigation into the Lowndes County, Alabama, flood and sanitation management system, one of the poorest and poorest in the country. environmentally degraded areas.

In most of these investigations, including the Houston investigation, the department aims to negotiate agreements with localities to address the issues that are found, Ms. Clarke said.

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