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Justice Department launches probe of illegal dumping in Houston

Much of the illegally discarded trash is reportedly from building contractors who toss out debris from gutted homes instead of bothering with taking it to a dump.

HOUSTON (CN) — The city of Houston’s handling of complaints of illegal trash dumping is under investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the agency announced Friday.

Houston’s understaffed waste management department has struggled to regularly pick up residents’ household trash across the sprawling city of 637 square miles.

City Council members say this is one of the complaints they receive most often from their constituents.

And waste management does not have the manpower to promptly respond to a growing number of calls about piles of trash illegally dumped along roads, in drainage ditches and empty lots.

Houstonians called 311 – a city helpline – more than 5,400 times complaining about illegal dumping in the first six months of 2022, nearly surpassing the total of 5,928 complaints in 2021, the Houston Chronicle reported.

But residents of predominantly Hispanic and Black neighborhoods have apparently spoken out about perceived bias in how the city responds to litter complaints.  

The Justice Department said its “investigation will examine whether the city’s enforcement and solid waste management operations, policies and practices in response to illegal dumping have resulted in discrimination against Black and Latino residents in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

With a population of 2.28 million people, Houston is the fourth-largest city in America. Its largest ethnic groups are Latino (44.5%), Black (22.8%) and white (24.1%), according to U.S. Census data.

Six of its City Council members are Black, as is its Mayor Sylvester Turner.

And despite the optics of the DOJ’s announcement, city officials have tried to crack down on illegal dumping.

The City Council voted in May 2021 to raise the maximum fine for illegal dumping from $2,000 to $4,000. And it’s not just police who can write tickets for the offense, the punishment for which ranges from a Class C misdemeanor up to state jail felony, contingent on the weight of the trash dumped and if the violator is a repeat offender. City rules allow designated Houston firefighters and city employees to cite illegal dumpers, according to the Chronicle.

Several councilmembers have also tapped “Hot Spot teams” to quickly respond to complaints and remove dumped refuse and to monitor sites where it is frequently dumped. Some have even had cameras installed throughout their districts to catch people in the act.

Houstonians can also easily get rid of their heavy trash: The city’s solid waste department picks up tree and plant waste left on the curb every odd-numbered month and junk waste, such as old mattresses, every even-numbered month.

But much of the illegally dumped trash is reportedly from building contractors, tossing out debris from gutted homes instead of bothering with taking it to a dump.

The DOJ said its probe is part of its new focus on environmental concerns, as Attorney General Merrick Garland announced in May the creation of the department’s first-ever Office of Environmental Justice.

“Illegal dumpsites not only attract rodents, mosquitos and other vermin that pose health risks, but they can also contaminate surface water and impact proper drainage, making areas more susceptible to flooding,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement.

“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. We will conduct a fair and thorough investigation of these environmental justice concerns and their impact on Black and Latino communities in the City of Houston,” she added.

Mayor Turner said in a statement Friday he was "stunned and disappointed" to learn of the DOJ's investigation, which he described as a "slap in the face to the city" given its extensive efforts to stop trash dumping.

"This investigation is absurd, baseless, and without merit," he continued. "The City of Houston prioritizes and utilizes several mechanisms to combat illegal dumping by third parties, a practice that we agree disproportionately plagues Black and Brown communities in Houston and many municipalities throughout the country. The City has spent millions and continues to spend millions of dollars in bulk waste collection as well as addressing illegal dumping caused by third parties."

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