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Justice Dept. Reaches Cleanup Deal With Houston After Civil Rights Inquiry

The Justice Department has reached an agreement with the City of Houston to improve trash removal and environmental monitoring after an investigation into the widespread dumping of garbage, including human bodies, in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods.

The pact, announced on Tuesday, was the result of a yearlong inquiry by the department’s civil rights division into dozens of complaints from residents. It includes a commitment by Mayor Sylvester Turner to fund cleanup projects, under the supervision of federal officials for three years.

The agreement, which followed weeks of negotiation between department officials and municipal leaders in Houston, is part of the Biden administration’s larger environmental justice agenda, which seeks to redress the disproportional impact of waste, air and water pollution on communities of color around the country.

“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,” Alamdar S. Hamdani, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, said on Tuesday during a news conference in Houston.

“For too long now, Houston’s underserved and low-income communities have had to bear the health burdens of the inaction and misdeeds of others,” he said.

Under the agreement, the city said it would provide additional data and information about its efforts to address illegal dumping. Local officials have also vowed to bolster enforcement actions against industrial and commercial polluters in a city whose notoriously lax zoning laws have resulted in the intermingling of industrial sites and residential neighborhoods.

The deal also requires Houston to develop an online “neighborhood equity dashboard” to analyze whether officials are fulfilling their commitments, which department officials hope will be a model for subsequent similar agreements.

The Justice Department opened a wide-ranging investigation last July after a local legal aid group lodged a federal civil rights complaint on behalf of Houston residents accusing the city of discriminating against residents of a neighborhood in the northeast, Trinity/Houston Gardens.

The heaps of household garbage, industrial waste and other items tossed into low-income neighborhoods in recent years included discarded furniture, mattresses, tires, medical waste, trash, dead bodies and vandalized A.T.M.s, Justice Department officials said at the time.

Lawyers with the legal aid group, Lone Star Legal Aid, spent months collecting complaints from people who called Houston’s 311 system to report illegal dumping and other environmental violations only to have their problems ignored.

At the time, Mr. Turner, a Democrat, blasted the department’s decision to open the investigation as “absurd, baseless and without merit.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Turner applauded the deal, but said it was an extension of initiatives his administration had already undertaken.

He ticked off a list of recent improvements under a plan he unveiled in March, saying the city had cut response times to illegal dumping complaints from 49 days to 11 days over the past year. It had also doubled the deployment of law enforcement officers to punish polluters, which has increased the total number of fines imposed from around 50 to more than 200 during the same period, he added.

“Despite all we have done and we continue to do, it was a little deflating,” Mr. Turner, who has been in office since 2016, said of the Justice Department’s decision to investigate the city.

Federal officials said they were more interested in improving conditions than denouncing the failures of the past.

Often, the department’s civil rights division releases investigative findings to the public before announcing voluntary agreements, or court-approved consent decrees, with the local authorities.

In this case, Kristen Clarke, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told reporters that the government had “suspended its investigation” into the city’s actions to focus “on remedying the problem.”

While the agreement alluded to the city’s troubled past, it did not include detailed investigative findings, or a deeper examination into the origins of some of its most chronic and consequential problems, including historic patterns of discrimination that led to the construction of 11 of 13 garbage incinerators in Houston’s Black and brown neighborhoods.

That is the same approach the department adopted in April, when officials announced a similar agreement — but no investigative report — after examining claims that state and local officials discriminated against Black residents in impoverished Lowndes County, Ala., by failing to adequately repair and maintain wastewater and sewage systems.

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