WASHINGTON — The Justice Department opened a wide-ranging investigation on Friday into the City of Houston’s failure to address environmental racism, including the rampant dumping of garbage — and even bodies — in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, officials said.
The investigation, prompted by hundreds of resident complaints logged by a local legal aid group, is likely to be one of the most ambitious environmental justice reviews undertaken by the department in recent years.
The inquiry will be led by the civil rights division in coordination with the department’s new environmental justice office. It will look into whether officials in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, systematically discriminated against residents by allowing 11 of 13 incinerators and landfills to be placed in the city’s northeast section over the past several decades.
The announcement is part of the Biden administration’s wider effort to address racial disparities that have relegated people of color to areas where they face far greater risk of exposure to carcinogens and other harmful pollutants, flooding and an array of environmental blights that decrease life spans, quality of life and property values.
Many of the problems outlined on Friday by Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general who leads the civil rights division, stem from a decades-long history of injustice rooted in racism and malign neglect, historically at the hands of white local officials.
But some issues are more recent: The Justice Department plans to pay particular attention to reports that residents who call Houston’s 311 system to complain about dumping and other environmental violations have been routinely ignored, Ms. Clarke said during a call with reporters.
Illegal dump sites in low-lying Houston “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,” Ms. Clarke said.
Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, criticized the investigation, saying that his administration had increased fines for illegal dumping and taken steps to improve conditions in the city’s Black and Latino neighborhoods.
“The City of Houston was stunned and disappointed to learn about the investigation into illegal dumping by third parties launched by the U.S. Department of Justice,” Mr. Turner said in a statement. “Despite the D.O.J.’s pronouncements, my office received no advanced notice. This investigation is absurd, baseless and without merit.”
The mayor, who is Black, added that he had “prioritized the needs of communities of color that are historically under-resourced and underserved.”
The Justice Department’s investigation was prompted by a complaint from Lone Star Legal Aid, which has monitored resident complaints in Houston’s northeast section. The area has become a dumping ground for “household furniture, mattresses, tires, medical waste, trash, dead bodies and vandalized A.T.M. machines,” Ms. Clarke said.
Amy Catherine Dinn, the managing attorney for the legal aid group’s environmental justice division, said, “This is all part of the city’s legacy of environmental racism, but that problem has gotten worse as the city has grown — and these neighborhoods have been deprived of the resources that wealthier white neighborhoods receive.”
Ms. Dinn said neighborhood residents had carefully documented hundreds of incidents of illegal dumping in the residential streets around a local garbage dump. They have registered their complaints through the city’s 311 system, only to wait months for help while similar problems have been addressed far more quickly in more affluent neighborhoods, she said.
“This is not a one-off problem,” she added. “The city has basically allowed this community to be used as a landfill.”
The environmental disparities described by the Justice Department on Friday are woven into the city’s urban fabric, a patchwork of commercial and residential buildings. Houston has some of the nation’s least restrictive zoning laws; as a result, many of the city’s petroleum processing facilities, petrochemical plants, dumps and transportation lots have been placed alongside low-income or working-class residential neighborhoods.
A 2016 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services found that people living in Houston’s Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood, a predominantly Latino area bordered by industrial facilities, suffered significantly higher cancer and asthma rates than people in other, whiter parts of the city further removed from grit-and-garbage industry.
In May, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced a series of policies intended to elevate the department’s environmental justice efforts from the symbolic to the substantive — including the creation of an office inside the department responsible for addressing the “harm caused by environmental crime, pollution and climate change.”
Even before then, the department had begun to explore criminal and civil cases under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, starting with an investigation into the sanitation and flood management system of Lowndes County, Ala., one of the country’s poorest and most environmentally blighted areas.
In most of these investigations, including the Houston inquiry, the department aims to negotiate settlements with localities to address the problems that are found, Ms. Clarke said.