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Black and Latino residents’ complaints about illegal trash dumping in Houston lead to federal investigation

By Mitchell Ferman, The Texas Tribune

Black and Latino residents’ complaints about illegal trash dumping in Houston lead to federal investigation” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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HOUSTON — The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether the city of Houston has illegally violated Black and Latino residents’ civil rights regarding how the city handles unlawful dumping of trash, federal investigators announced Friday.

The Justice Department will examine the city’s enforcement and solid-waste management operations, policies and practices when it responds to residents’ requests for municipal services — including how the city picks up illegally discarded trash — and whether those processes have discriminated against Black and Latino Houston residents in violation of federal civil rights law.

“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,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “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.

“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.”

The investigation was spurred by a complaint filed late last year by Lone Star Legal Aid on behalf of a neighborhood in northeast Houston that complained about people dumping tires, sofas, mattresses, TVs and other items on the streets, said Amy Dinn, managing attorney for the environmental justice team at Lone Star Legal Aid. Some illegal dumping has clogged drainage ditches, which has increased flooding problems during heavy rains.

Huey German-Wilson, a resident in the neighborhood, said it’s tough to pinpoint why exactly this has been happening in her community over the years.

“We get a hodgepodge of reasons why people are doing it, but why does it stay on our streets for so long?” German-Wilson told The Texas Tribune on Friday.

Residents in the neighborhood said they’ve complained for years through Houston’s 311 customer service hotline, designed to help residents call for city services and report non-emergency concerns. But Dinn said the requests from northeast Houston residents to address the illegal dumping were disregarded.

“It’s not an imaginary thing, and this is not a self-created issue,” Dinn told the Tribune. “It’s an issue that comes from the outside.”

The DOJ investigation is the latest attempt by Houston’s Black and Latino communities to address persistent environmental hazards in their neighborhoods. Black and Latino residents have fought to keep new sources of pollution from moving into their communities, from concrete batch plants to interstate expansions. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan visited one Houston community last year and promised environmental cleanups, emissions enforcement and infrastructure investments.

Although the Biden administration has been making an effort to address environmental justice issues, German-Wilson said the city, Harris County and the state of Texas should have been dealing with these concerns all along.

“They have whole entire budgets and people who deal with these issues — why did we have to go all the way to the Department of Justice?” German-Wilson said. “I’m immensely relieved we could potentially have some resolution here, but can I really rest on that?”

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