The U.S. Department of Justice will investigate the illegal dumping of dead bodies, medical waste and other trash in Houston’s Black and Latino neighborhoods, officials announced last week.
Houston residents see the Justice Department’s civil rights probe into the city’s response to trash services as welcome news. However, Houston officials accused the federal government of stepping on their toes. Federal investigators will determine if the city and police department discriminated against Black and brown residents by not doing enough to protect them from hazardous waste.
“So what this is saying to us in terms of the Department of Justice is that somebody heard us, and they see that this is ridiculous,” said Huey German-Wilson, the Super Neighborhood president for Trinity/Houston Gardens, a Black and Latino neighborhood, where the complaint originated.
Houston residents have complained for decades about environmental racism. The investigation will focus on Trinity/Houston Gardens. It is the first of its kind since Attorney General Merrick Garland created an environmental justice office in May.
“Illegal dumpsites not only attract rodents, mosquitos, 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 assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s civil rights division during a July 22 press conference.
Clarke said people have also dumped furniture, tires, mattresses, appliances, and even vandalized ATMs in the Houston neighborhood. Reports show the investigation stems from a complaint filed by Lone Star Legal Aid. The nonprofit advocacy group helps low-income residents in Texas and Arkansas with legal issues, including environmental justice.
“No one in the United States should be exposed to the risk of illness and other serious harm because of ineffective solid waste management or inadequate enforcement programs,” Clarke said. “We will conduct a fair and thorough investigation of these environmental justice concerns and their impact on Black and Latino communities in the City of Houston.”
However, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, who is Black, said in a statement he was “stunned and disappointed to learn about the investigation.”
According to Turner, who called the investigation “absurd, baseless and without merit,″Despite the DOJ’s pronouncements, my office received no advanced notice.″
Turner said the city already has made stopping illegal dumping a priority, spending millions of dollars to curtail it — but it has proven difficult because people outside the neighborhood are the culprits.
Turner said the Houston City Council doubled the maximum fine for illegal dumping to the maximum allowed by the state of $4,000 last year. In addition, the city has launched a hotline for reporting dumping and has installed surveillance cameras near the dumping sites.
ABC13 analyzed all 13,566 illegal dumping complaints to the hotline since 2020, and nearly 90 percent of them were in areas with a majority of Black and Latino residents.
German-Wilson also said people from Trinity/Houston Gardens put in hotline requests to get the illegal trash removed, but she believes they do not get the same treatment from the city as most white neighborhoods do.
“On the other side of town, you wouldn’t leave illegal dumping at Bissonnet and Kirby for longer than a couple of hours,” German-Wilson said.
ABC13 found it takes 12 days to resolve a dumping complaint in a non-white neighborhood and just nine days in a predominantly white one.
The mayor’s office said the city’s efforts to combat the environmental issue “leveraging public and private resources should be acknowledged instead of vilified,” but he still welcomes “the DOJ’s support in that effort.”
Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, whose district includes southwestern Houston, said although he took issue with the DOJ’s “abrupt action without consulting with or giving any prior notice to Houston-area officials,” including his office, he will back the city’s efforts to resolve the issues and cooperate with federal investigators.
German-Wilson said she is looking forward to a cleanlier and healthier neighborhood for children who live in Trinity/Houston Gardens.
“That’s what I want to see, them walking to school, not walking in the middle of the street because there’s so much stuff piled on the side and in the ditches that they can’t get by,” said German-Wilson.