By Valerie Volcovici and Kanishka Singh
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Justice Department on Friday opened an investigation into whether the city of Houston's response to illegal dumping discriminated against Black and Latino communities, citing environmental and health risks.
The Justice Department's civil rights division will lead the environmental justice investigation with support from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas. It will examine whether Houston's environmental enforcement and solid waste management operations, policies and practices resulted in discriminatory dumping in Black and Latino communities.
"Illegal dump sites not only attract rodents, mosquitoes and other vermin that pose health risks, but they can also contaminate surface water and impact proper drainage, making areas more susceptible to flooding," said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the department’s civil rights division.
"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," Clarke added.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the launch of the probe was disappointing. He described the investigation as "absurd, baseless, and without merit." He added the city will cooperate with the Justice Department and was confident the outcome would show no discrimination from Houston.
The investigation is part of a broader Biden administration effort to prioritize environmental justice in its policymaking. The Justice Department in May announced the launch of a new office to help low-income areas and communities of color battle the disproportionate impact of air and water pollution.
"This investigation exemplifies the department's commitment to alleviating disproportionate environmental burdens or an all too often by communities of color, low income communities and to tribal communities," said U.S. Attorney Jennifer Lowery in a press conference.
Clarke said the complaints of illegal dumping, including reports of dead bodies and animals, came from northeast Houston and extend back years. She said the investigation will examine citywide data and focus on disparities between the specific neighborhood and the rest of the city.
If the Justice Department finds violations of the Civil Rights Act, it will work with city officials to come up with a voluntary compliance plan for the city, Clarke said.
(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Matthew Lewis and Aurora Ellis)