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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks Announcing Launch of Environmental Justice Investigation into the City of Houston, Texas


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good morning. My name is Kristen Clarke and I am the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice.

Today we are here to announce that the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas are opening an investigation to determine whether the City of Houston, Texas, is complying with the nondiscrimination requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This important federal civil rights law prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin in their programs or activities. The investigation we are launching today will be focused on the City’s response to reports of illegal dumping, including the 311 Houston Service Helpline system.

The investigation is prompted by a complaint sent to the Justice Department from Lone Star Legal Aid. The complaint alleges that the City of Houston engages in race and national origin discrimination against a predominately Black and Latino area in Northeast Houston — Houston’s Trinity/Houston Gardens Super Neighborhood 48. The complaint set forth complaints by residents in the upper Neighborhood 48 who frequently make calls complaining about the illegal dumping of household furniture, mattresses, tires, medical waste, trash, dead bodies, and vandalized ATM machines and other items dumped and abandoned in their community. The complaint alleges that the City’s denial of services, failure to enforce municipal codes and permit restrictions, and failure to adequately and equitably respond to illegal dumpsite concerns and service requests threaten the health and safety of Black and Latino people in Houston. These alleged acts also devalue the real property of Black and Latino Houstonians in violation of Title VI.

Data compiled by the City shows that a high concentration of the illegal dumping occurring within Houston takes place in communities of color. Historically, Houston has also placed a high concentration of its municipally-owned and operated dumpsites and solid waste facilities within predominately Black and Latino communities. For instance, according to the complaint, the city built eleven of its 13 city-owned landfills and incinerators in Black neighborhoods. This concentration of dumpsites and other industrial sites in these communities can further attract illegal dumping.

Our investigation will focus on Houston’s Department of Neighborhoods, Police Department, Solid Waste Management Department, and 311 system, all of which play central roles in the City’s receipt of, and response to, concerns and service requests related to illegal dumpsites. All of these municipal departments and services receive federal financial assistance.

We will seek to identify, address and, if necessary, resolve the impacts of the City’s response to, or failure to respond to, illegal dumping in communities of color in Houston. Earlier today we sent the Mayor’s Office a request for information and documents. We will also conduct interviews of residents, officials, community liaisons and other stakeholders. We will analyze documents and data, including data from Houston’s 311 system to understand the City’s response to calls and complaints of illegal dumping, and determine whether there are racial disparities in response times to complaints made from Black and Latino communities via-a-vis white communities. We will conduct a fair and thorough investigation of these environmental justice concerns and their impact on communities of color in Houston. The Civil Rights Division will lead the investigation in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas.

Illegal dumping is a long-standing environmental justice issue. And like many other environmental justice issues, it often disproportionately burdens Black and Latino communities. Illegal dumpsites not only attract rodents, mosquito and other vermin that pose health risks, but they can also contaminate surface water and impact proper drainage, making areas more susceptible to flooding. Illegal dumpsites denies residents the ability to enjoy their communities and strips vulnerable communities of the ability to lead their lives with full dignity and respect.  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.

For decades, environmental justice advocates have brought attention to the disproportionate burden faced specifically by communities of color in Houston from illegal dumping. Through this investigation, we will follow the facts and if necessary, work to institute the reforms necessary to address these long-standing concerns.

This investigation builds on the department’s response to ever-increasing environmental justice concerns. Environmental, economic, health and infrastructure challenges are compounded by ongoing public health and severe weather events, and are disproportionately experienced by Black and Latino communities.

Advancing environmental justice through enforcement of our nation’s federal laws continues to be a top priority for the Department of Justice. I am pleased to be joined this morning by Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim for the Environment and Natural Resources Division. Assistant Attorney General Kim is not only spearheading the creation of the department’s Office of Environmental Justice, but I am also privileged to work closely with him as we implement the department’s Comprehensive Environmental Justice Enforcement Strategy that the Attorney General announced in May. We will hear from Assistant Attorney General Kim in a few minutes.

Safe and sanitary communities are central to the social fabric of the United States. We must work together to ensure that residents are not unjustifiably placed at disproportionate risk of illness and economic harm because of inadequate access to and response from federally funded municipal programs and activities.

Thank you. I will now turn it over to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas, Jennifer Lowery.

Civil Rights
Updated July 25, 2022