Houston commits to cleaning up after illegal dumpers under agreement with Department of Justice
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
The U.S. Justice Department and City of Houston have reached a three-year voluntary agreement to tackle illegal dumping, which settles a civil rights complaint alleging that the city’s response to concerns from Black and Latino residents that illegal dumping in their neighborhoods was discriminatory.
The agreement announced Tuesday requires the city to address illegal dumping through the city’s recently launched One Clean Houston initiative — especially in Black and Latino communities — through rapid cleanup, better enforcement and educational outreach. The cleanup initiative, which the city announced in March, has a $17.8 million budget.
It also requires city leaders to do more community outreach, monitor and provide more data about its response to illegal dumping and develop an enforcement and educational plan to address commercial sources of illegal dumping.
“No one should have to live next to discarded tires, bags of trash, rotting carcasses, infected soils and contaminated groundwater, all caused by illegal dumping,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas Alamdar S. Hamdani, whose department conducted the investigation in collaboration with the Department of Justice. "My hope is that this resolution is an important step in remedying those wrongs.”
Huey German-Wilson, a resident who spent years fighting illegal dumping in her Houston neighborhood, called the settlement a “dream come true.” She and others in the Trinity Gardens and Houston Gardens areas had sent requests to the city through 311 to get illegal dump sites cleaned up, and the city’s alleged lack of attention and in some cases retaliation led to the residents’ complaint.
"This is quite a feat and it’s way more than we could have imagined," she said.
The way the community succeeded in drawing the DOJ’s attention to what is both an environmental and civil rights issue was a good start and good model for other places, environmental justice expert and Texas Southern University professor Robert Bullard said. He hoped the approach might be applied to issues at the state level.
“Clearly Black and brown communities don’t receive the same response in terms of cleanup response to these illegal sites,” Bullard said. “The data points to the fact that there’s disparate treatment and a differential response.”
This is the second environmental justice settlement by the DOJ that started with a civil rights complaint and follows the Biden administration’s promise to enhance civil and criminal enforcement of environmental violations in communities overburdened by pollution.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a written statement that the agreement “will ensure that Houston fully addresses chronic illegal dumpsites, provides access to adequate waste management services and improves quality of life in communities of color.”
The agreement gives the city 30 days to identify someone to lead its One Clean Houston initiative as a coordinator and 60 days to hold its first meeting to discuss the initiative with the solid waste management department and other departments. It also requires some Houston city employees to go through a federal civil rights training program supplied by the DOJ during the three-year monitoring period.
Last July, the Justice Department announced its investigation into the city’s enforcement of illegal dumping and its solid-waste management operations after it received a civil rights complaint filed by Lone Star Legal Aid on behalf of Houston residents who claimed that the city discriminated against Black and Latino residents in their Northeast Houston neighborhoods.
After completing its investigation, the DOJ didn’t issue findings against the city on the discrimination allegations, but said it will monitor the city’s response to ensure that it follows the agreement’s requirements for three years.
“I have worked throughout my administration to fight environmental injustice, and to have an allegation like this, despite all we have done and are doing, it is unfair and disappointing,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a press release Tuesday. “With this voluntary resolution, we agree with the Department of Justice to move together as partners towards a solution.”
German-Wilson, who grew up in the area known as the Gardens and is now the neighborhood group’s president, described how kids walking home from school had to skirt huge piles of trash to get home. She said residents often had to wait three to six months for the city to pick up the trash that was illegally dumped in her neighborhood.
“To have an entire [demolished] house set out on a vacant lot on a corner … or 10 mattresses or 200 tires to be along the roadside that are attracting snakes and all kinds of animals and mosquitoes … that was embarrassing to our communities,” she said.
German-Wilson said illegal dumping has also made it hard for the community to prosper and grow. People were reluctant to open businesses or build homes, she said.
The DOJ settlement will finally allow people to see her “beautiful little community” free of trash on the streets, she added.
Disclosure: Texas Southern University - Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Go behind the headlines with newly announced speakers at the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, in downtown Austin from Sept. 21-23. Join them to get their take on what’s next for Texas and the nation.