By MATTHEW DALY
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department said Friday it is investigating illegal dumping in the city of Houston — including dead bodies — that officials said are left in 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, medical waste and vandalized ATM machines, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said at a news conference Friday.
“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, who heads the department’s civil rights division.
The investigation is the first publicly announced environmental justice action since Attorney General Merrick Garland created an office of environmental justice within the agency in May. The new 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.
Illegal dumpsites not only attract rodents, mosquitos 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.
Mary Benton, a spokeswoman for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said Friday she was “not aware of” dead bodies being dumped anywhere in Houston. The city doubled its maximum fine for illegal dumping violations last year, 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.
A spokesperson for the Houston-based group could not be immediately reached for comment.