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Justice Dept. Will Investigate Environmental Racism in Houston

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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department opened a wide-ranging investigation on Friday into the City of Houston’s failure to handle environmental racism, including the rampant dumping of garbage — and even bodies — in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, officials said.

The investigation, prompted by tons of of resident complaints logged by an area legal aid group, is more likely to be one of the ambitious environmental justice reviews undertaken by the department lately.

The inquiry shall be led by the civil rights division in coordination with the department’s recent environmental justice office. It should look into whether officials in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, systematically discriminated against residents by allowing 11 of 13 incinerators and landfills to be placed in the town’s northeast section over the past several many years.

The announcement is a component of the Biden administration’s wider effort to handle racial disparities which have relegated people of color to areas where they face far greater risk of exposure to carcinogens and other harmful pollutants, flooding and an array of environmental blights that decrease life spans, quality of life and property values.

Lots of the problems outlined on Friday by Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general who leads the civil rights division, stem from a decades-long history of injustice rooted in racism and malign neglect, historically by the hands of white local officials.

But some issues are more moderen: The Justice Department plans to pay particular attention to reports that residents who call Houston’s 311 system to complain about dumping and other environmental violations have been routinely ignored, Ms. Clarke said during a call with reporters.

Illegal dump sites in low-lying Houston “not only attract rodents, mosquitoes and other vermin that pose health risks, but they can even contaminate surface water and impact proper drainage, making areas more at risk of flooding,” Ms. Clarke said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, criticized the investigation, saying that his administration had increased fines for illegal dumping and brought steps to enhance conditions in the town’s Black and Latino neighborhoods.

“The City of Houston was stunned and disenchanted to learn in regards to the investigation into illegal dumping by third parties launched by the U.S. Department of Justice,” Mr. Turner said in a press release. “Despite the D.O.J.’s pronouncements, my office received no advanced notice. This investigation is absurd, baseless and without merit.”

The mayor, who’s Black, added that he had “prioritized the needs of communities of color which are historically under-resourced and underserved.”

The Justice Department’s investigation was prompted by a grievance from Lone Star Legal Aid, which has monitored resident complaints in Houston’s northeast section. The world has change into a dumping ground for “household furniture, mattresses, tires, medical waste, trash, dead bodies and vandalized A.T.M. machines,” Ms. Clarke said.

Amy Catherine Dinn, the managing attorney for the legal aid group’s environmental justice division, said, “That is all a part of the town’s legacy of environmental racism, but that problem has gotten worse as the town has grown — and these neighborhoods have been deprived of the resources that wealthier white neighborhoods receive.”

Ms. Dinn said neighborhood residents had fastidiously documented tons of of incidents of illegal dumping within the residential streets around an area garbage dump. They’ve registered their complaints through the town’s 311 system, only to attend months for help while similar problems have been addressed much more quickly in additional affluent neighborhoods, she said.

“This is just not a one-off problem,” she added. “Town has principally allowed this community for use as a landfill.”

The environmental disparities described by the Justice Department on Friday are woven into the town’s urban fabric, a patchwork of economic and residential buildings. Houston has among the nation’s least restrictive zoning laws; because of this, lots of the city’s petroleum processing facilities, petrochemical plants, dumps and transportation lots have been placed alongside low-income or working-class residential neighborhoods.

A 2016 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services found that individuals living in Houston’s Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood, a predominantly Latino area bordered by industrial facilities, suffered significantly higher cancer and asthma rates than people in other, whiter parts of the town further faraway from grit-and-garbage industry.

In May, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced a series of policies intended to raise the department’s environmental justice efforts from the symbolic to the substantive — including the creation of an office contained in the department chargeable for addressing the “harm attributable to environmental crime, pollution and climate change.”

Even before then, the department had begun to explore criminal and civil cases under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, starting with an investigation into the sanitation and flood management system of Lowndes County, Ala., one in all the country’s poorest and most environmentally blighted areas.

In most of those investigations, including the Houston inquiry, the department goals to barter settlements with localities to handle the issues which are found, Ms. Clarke said.

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