Houston will not face punishment after settling a Justice Department probe into whether the city’s system of responding to illegal dumping calls violated the Civil Rights Act by disregarding Black and Latino neighborhoods.
Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration reached a three-year voluntary resolution with the federal government, officials announced at a Tuesday afternoon news conference. The settlement comes after Turner announced a $17.8 million plan to crack down on dumpsites in March, eight months after the inquiry’s start. The feds said that alleviated many of their concerns.
Turner’s plan, known as “One Clean Houston,” seeks to expedite cleanups, increase surveillance and enforcement, and prioritize the areas hardest hit by roadside trash. The voluntary resolution builds on the plan by requiring the city to conduct additional community outreach, to monitor and provide more data about its response, and to explore tougher enforcement of commercial dumpers, among other efforts.
The mayor said Tuesday the plan already has proven effective: The average response time to dumpsites has fallen from 49 days to 11 days; the city has filed 110 criminal cases thus far this year, quadruple the number from the same period last year; and the city is set to partner with the Harris County Precinct 1 constable’s office to continue boosting enforcement.
“I think we have made a significant step in improving the quality of life for everyone who lives in our city,” Turner said. “Sometimes things don’t have to be contentious. Sometimes by working together, we can end up with a better product, and I believe today … we have ended up with a much better result.”
The agreement also requires the city to restore a neighborhood equity dashboard within 90 days, which will help federal monitors analyze the city’s responsiveness by demographic group and geographic area. The city will file reports every two months for the first year, and then quarterly after that.
Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who has been called the father of environmental justice, hailed the agreement. It is just the second time the DOJ has reached a civil rights settlement for environmental justice.
“Illegal dumping, this isn’t new, it’s been going on forever, with no money behind it,” Bullard said. “But it’s a new day. … The challenge right now is, it’s the city and the feds with the money, but the state of Texas is not doing anything. When we talk about infrastructure and waste management, our cities are neglected.”
See here and here for the background. When I wrote about “One Clean Houston”, I didn’t make the connection to the DOJ investigation. I’m glad to see that the effect of the “One Clean Houston” initiative has been so positive. Everyone seems happy with this resolution, and that’s great.
Houston Landing adds an interesting detail.
The investigation of Houston’s response to illegal dumping was something of a test case for the Justice Department’s role in fighting environmental discrimination. Clarke’s division last month reached its first-ever environmental justice settlement using civil rights laws, in a case involving sewage system failures in Lowndes County, Alabama, near the state capital of Montgomery.
That settlement was accompanied by a series of findings that Alabama authorities failed to help Black residents. No such findings accompanied the agreement that the Justice Department reached with Houston. Clarke sidestepped a question about whether federal investigators turned up evidence of discrimination.
“We are now focused on remedying the problem, remedying the issue of illegal dumping,” Clarke said. “So no findings have (been) issued. We are now focused on putting the city on (a) path to reform.”
Even better. Go get ’em, I say.