Last Friday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that their Civil Rights division will be leading an “environmental justice investigation into the City of Houston’s operations, policies and practices related to illegal dumping.”

In a statement, Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said “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.”

Clarke went on to explain how 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,” she said.

This investigation is a result of the efforts of Lone Star Legal Aid, which filed a complaint on behalf of a neighborhood in a northeast Houston that complained about people dumping tires, sofas, mattresses, TVs and other items on the streets. Some illegal dumping has clogged drainage ditches, which has increased flooding problems during heavy rains.  

Besides the abovementioned items, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said that medical waste and dead bodies have also been illegally dumped into these communities.

Neighborhood residents, which is made up of predominantly Black and Latinx people, have long complained to the city about their concerns, but their pleas have been constantly overlooked and disregarded. This is their latest endeavor to try and combat the ongoing environmental hazards present in their community.

Huey German-Wilson has lived in the neighborhood for many years, and said, “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? …I’m immensely relieved we could potentially have some resolution here, but can I really rest on that?”

This is the first public environmental justice work by the newly minted office of environmental justice, which was created by Attorney General Merrick Garland in May. This “office is focused on ‘fenceline communities’ in Houston, New Orleans, Chicago and other cities that have been exposed to air and water pollution from chemical plants, refineries and other industrial sites.”

City of Houston’s Mayor Sylvester Turner spoke with local news outlet and said the DOJ’s investigation was “absurd, baseless and without merit,” stated the city has spent millions fighting illegal dumping, calling it “a practice that we agree disproportionately plagues Black and Brown communities in Houston and many municipalities throughout the country.”

Despite the mayor’s assertions, the DOJ has indicated that environmental justice issues are endemic and widespread in the city of Houston, “noting 11 of its 13 city-owned landfills and incinerators are in majority-Black neighborhoods — the density of which” attracts even more illegal dumping.”