Los Angeles Times

Prosecutor­s target illegal dumping as a civil rights issue

- BY MATTHEW DALY Daly writes for the Associated Press.

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Friday it is investigat­ing illegal dumping in Houston, including dead bodies and medical waste, that officials said is plaguing Black and Latino neighborho­ods in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The investigat­ion will be led by the department’s civil rights division and will examine whether city police and other department­s discrimina­te against Black and Latino residents in violation of federal civil rights laws. Besides bodies, items dumped in majority Black or Latino neighborho­ods include appliances, furniture, tires, mattresses and even vandalized ATM machines, Assistant Atty. Gen. Kristen Clarke said at a news conference Friday.

“Illegal dumping is a long-standing environmen­tal justice issue, and like many other environmen­tal justice issues, it often disproport­ionately burdens Black and Latino communitie­s,” said Clarke, who heads the department’s civil rights division.

The investigat­ion is the first publicly announced environmen­tal justice action since Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland created an office of environmen­tal justice within the agency in May. The new office is focused on “fence-line 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.

Illegal dumpsites not only attract rodents, mosquitoes and other vermin that pose health risks, but they can also contaminat­e surface water and make neighborho­ods more susceptibl­e to flooding, Clarke said. They also can lower property values, harm quality of life and even reduce expected lifespans, Clarke and other officials said.

“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,’’ she said.

The Houston investigat­ion will focus on Trinity/ Houston Gardens, a predominan­tly Black and Latino neighborho­od in northeaste­rn Houston. Residents frequently complain about illegal dumping there, Clarke said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Friday he was “stunned and disappoint­ed to learn about the investigat­ion” by the Justice Department.

“Despite the DOJ’s pronouncem­ents, my office received no advanced notice,” Turner said in a statement, calling the investigat­ion “absurd, baseless and without merit.”

Turner, who is Black, said the city makes it a priority to combat illegal dumping, “a practice that we agree disproport­ionately plagues Black and brown communitie­s in Houston and many municipali­ties throughout the country.” The city has spent millions of dollars to fight illegal dumping, Turner said, adding that the problem is overwhelmi­ngly caused by third parties who do not live in the affected neighborho­ods.

The Houston City Council doubled the maximum fine for illegal dumping to $4,000 last year, the maximum allowed by state law, Turner said. The city also has installed surveillan­ce cameras to catch and prosecute individual­s and businesses responsibl­e for illegal dumping and encourages city residents to call 311 to register complaints.

Mary Benton, a spokeswoma­n for Turner, said Friday she was “not aware of” dead bodies being dumped anywhere in Houston.

During the first six months of the year, Houston residents called the city’s 311 line more than 5,400 times to complain about illegal dumping, the Houston Chronicle reported. That’s nearly as many complaints as recorded in all of 2021, the newspaper said.

“It’s a huge problem across the entire city,” City Council member Martha Castex-Tatum told the paper. Castex-Tatum blamed much of the illegal dumping on landscapin­g and constructi­on crews or landlords clearing out recently vacated apartments. Besides tires and mattresses, other items frequently dumped include air conditione­rs, water heaters and major appliances, she said.

The federal inquiry follows a complaint by Lone Star Legal Aid, a nonprofit advocacy group that helps low-income residents in Texas and Arkansas on a range of legal issues, including landlord-tenant disputes, foreclosur­es, disaster recovery and environmen­tal justice.

Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), whose district includes southweste­rn Houston, criticized what he called a “rush-to-judgment announceme­nt” by the Justice Department without notifying the city or local members of Congress. His office “fully supports the city of Houston and Mayor Turner’s efforts to ensure all Houstonian­s live in a safe and healthy environmen­t,” Green said.

 ?? Annie Mulligan Houston Chronicle ?? PILES OF TRASH near a Houston street. The Justice Department says illegal dumping in the city disproport­ionately burdens Black and Latino communitie­s.
Annie Mulligan Houston Chronicle PILES OF TRASH near a Houston street. The Justice Department says illegal dumping in the city disproport­ionately burdens Black and Latino communitie­s.

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