Since his appointment last year as the nation’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Merrick Garland has sought to prioritize issues of environmental justice, announcing the creation in May of a Justice Department office to help coordinate the federal government’s legal strategy. The Houston case, officials said, was prompted by a 65-page complaint from Lone Star Legal Aidwhich alleged that the city has denied services and failed to enforce municipal codes in some neighborhoods.
“The complaint we received indicates the issues extend back years,” Clarke said. “It’s deeply troubling to see the reports of the items regularly dumped and abandoned in Black and Latino communities.”
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Justice officials said investigators have requested data from Houston’s 311 city services center to determine whether there has been a pattern of neglect of calls from certain sections of the city. The probe will focus on the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, the police department and the solid waste management division, all of which receive federal funding.
Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, jurisdictions that receive federal funding are barred from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.
Huey German-Wilson, president of Super Neighborhood 48, a community group that represents the affected areas, said she cried with relief upon hearing of the Justice Department’s intervention. She said residents have tried to work with city officials to fix problems they have identified with the 311 system, to no avail.
“We’ve been working on this for seven years in earnest. We saw illegal dumping as one of our No. 1 nuisances,” German-Wilson said, citing one case in which residents reported more than 200 tires in a space about the size of a football field.
Lone Star Legal Aid filed its sweeping complaint to several federal agencies, including the Commerce Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The organization included a broader set of concerns, such as a lack of economic development, including grocery stores, and a need for more parks and recreational spaces. Justice officials held a conference call with representatives from those agencies and community leaders in April.
In a follow-up letter to the Justice Department this month, Amy Catherine Dinn, an attorney for Lone Star Legal Aid, cited ongoing problems with Houston’s service call line, despite the city’s efforts to implement a new system, writing that the 311 reporting system “remains broken.”
A spokeswoman for Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said the office would issue a statement.
Clarke said illegal dumping can disadvantage neighborhoods in multiple ways, including by attracting rodents and mosquitoes, lowering property values, causing illness, obstructing sewer drainage, and contaminating drinking water.
“In America, your Zip code often is a key determinant of your cancer risk … and even your expected life span,” said Todd S. Kim, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s environment and natural resources division. “It’s true that any of us could be exposed to environmental contamination, but it’s also true that communities of color, low-income communities and tribal communities bear these hardships disproportionately.”
Clarke said the Justice Department would seek to work collaboratively with Houston officials to develop a voluntary compliance plan to address any violations uncovered in the investigation.