The Justice Department has reached an agreement with the City of Houston to improve trash removal and environmental monitoring after an investigation into the widespread dumping of trash, including human bodies, in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods.
The pact, announced Tuesday, was the result of a year-long investigation by the department’s civil rights division into dozens of complaints by residents. It includes a pledge from Mayor Sylvester Turner to fund cleanup projects, overseen by federal officials for three years.
The deal, which followed weeks of negotiations between department officials and municipal leaders in Houston, is part of the Biden administration’s broader environmental justice agenda, which seeks to redress the disproportionate impact of waste, air and water pollution on communities of color across the country.
“No one should have to live next to discarded tires, bags of trash, rotting carcasses, infected soils and contaminated groundwater, all caused by illegal dumping,” Alamdar S. Hamdani, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, said Tuesday. during a press conference in Houston.
« For too long, Houston’s underprivileged and low-income communities have had to bear the health burdens of inaction and the misdeeds of others, » he said.
Under the agreement, the city said it will provide more data and insight into its efforts to address illegal dumping. Local officials also vowed to step up enforcement action against industrial and commercial polluters in a city whose notoriously lax zoning laws have led to the mixing of industrial sites and residential neighborhoods.
The deal also requires Houston to develop an online « neighborhood fairness dashboard » to analyze whether officials are meeting their commitments, which department officials hope will be a blueprint for subsequent similar deals.
The Justice Department opened a wide-ranging investigation last July after a local legal aid group filed a federal civil rights complaint on behalf of Houston residents accusing the city of discriminating against residents of a northern neighborhood -east, Trinity/Houston Gardens.
Piles of household trash, industrial waste and other items dumped in low-income neighborhoods in recent years included furniture, mattresses, tires, medical waste, trash, dead bodies and vandalized ATMs, Justice Department officials said at the time.
Attorneys at the legal aid group, Lone Star Legal Aid, have spent months collecting complaints from people who have called Houston’s 311 system to report illegal dumping and other environmental violations only to have their problems ignored.
At the time, Mr. Turner, a Democrat, called the department’s decision to open the investigation « absurd, baseless and without merit. »
On Tuesday, Turner applauded the deal but said it was an extension of initiatives his administration had already taken.
He ticked off a list of recent improvements under a plan he unveiled in March, saying the city reduced response time to illegal dumping complaints from 49 days to 11 days over the past year. He also doubled the deployment of law enforcement to punish polluters, which increased the total number of fines imposed from around 50 to more than 200 in the same period, he added.
« Despite everything we’ve done and continue to do, it’s been a bit deflated, » said Turner, who has been in office since 2016, of the Justice Department’s decision to investigate the city.
Federal officials said they were more interested in improving conditions than exposing past failures.
Often, the department’s civil rights division makes the findings of investigations public before announcing voluntary agreements or court-approved consent decrees with local authorities.
In this case, Kristen Clarke, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told reporters that the government had « suspended its investigation » into the city’s actions to focus « on remedying the problem. »
While the settlement alluded to the city’s troubled past, it did not include detailed investigative findings or a deeper examination of the origins of some of its more chronic and consequential problems, including the historical patterns of discrimination that led to the construction of 11 of 13 waste incinerators in the black and brown neighborhoods of Houston.
That’s the same approach the department took in April when officials announced a similar settlement — but no investigative reports — after examining claims that state and local officials discriminated against black residents in poor Lowndes County, Alabama. , failing to adequately repair and maintain wastewater and sewage.