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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke heads the investigation.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke heads the investigation. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images.

Justice Department investigating Houston for illegal dumping, including medical waste and human bodies

America’s fourth largest city is being investigated for civil rights violations for illegal dumping plaguing majority Black & Latino neighborhoods.

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The Justice Department announced last Friday, July 22 that the civil rights division of the department would begin investigations into the city of Houston amid complaints of illegal dumping in Black and Latino neighborhoods. They will determine whether Houston police and other departments are in violation of civil rights and discrimination towards Black and Latinos. 

Apart from dead bodies and medical waste being dumped in these neighborhoods, according to statements made by Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke at a news conference on Friday, other items include dead animals, mattresses, tires, appliances, and vandalized ATM machines. This comes on the heels of the city of Chicago being found in violation of civil rights for attempting to relocate a polluted scrap metal business from a mostly Northside White neighborhood to the Southside, made up of majority Black and Latino populations. 

A spokeswoman for Mayor Sylvester Turner, Mary Benton, responded to the investigation on Friday, saying she was “not aware of” of dead bodies being dumped anywhere in the city despite the huge amounts of complaints. 

The investigation will also look into the city’s 311 line, a number for residents to call for city services, and non-emergency complaints, as the Houston Chronicle reported more than 5,400 complaints from residents in just the first half of 2022, which is more than all of 2021. The investigation will look into the team behind the hotline.

According to Clarke, illegal dumping brings rodents, vermin, and other harmful effects that post life threatening conditions, especially for Black and Latinos who are more susceptible to respiratory illnesses as a result. Surface water is also contaminated and it makes these areas more subject to heavy flooding. 

Overall, besides bringing property values down, it is harmful to quality of life and lifespans. The Northeast part of the city, the site of the illegal dumping, is majority Black and Latino. Specifically, the Trinity/Houston Gardens area is where the complaints have come from. Additionally, 11 of 13 of Houston’s landfills are located in mostly Black neighborhoods.

“Illegal dumping is a longstanding environmental justice issue, and like many other environmental justice issues, it often disproportionately burdens Black and Latino communities,” said Clarke. “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.” 

Houston leaders and officials have responded rather negligently to the investigation and the allegations set forth against them. On the same Friday as the news conference announcing the investigation, Turner said he was “stunned and disappointed to learn about the investigation.”

“Despite the DOJ’s pronouncements, my office received no advanced notice,” he said, going on to call the investigation “absurd, baseless and without merit.″ 

Despite this, the Mayor, who is Black, said he has put efforts forth to combating illegal dumping, especially in areas that are majority Black and Latino. An issue that he recognizes that plagues these groups of people specifically, Turner claims the city has spent millions of dollars on combating the issue, as he says the dumping is a result of third parties who do not live in those areas. 

Democratic Texas Rep. Al Green also responded in support of Mayor Turner, calling the investigation a “rush-to-judgment announcement.” Green said in a statement released by Turner’s office that Green’s administration “fully supports the city of Houston and Mayor Turner’s efforts to ensure all Houstonians live in a safe and healthy environment.”

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