Toxic Racism Confronts DOJ Environmental Discrimination Investigations

  • Houston Development Settlement

  • History of environmental justice

(Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department recently launched an environmental justice investigation in Houston, the second in a program launched last year that marks the federal government’s most significant acknowledgment of environmental racism to date. .

As research has shown, minority communities bear most of the toxic effects of industrial pollution – a phenomenon that in many cases stems from underlying systemic criminality.

The DOJ announcement on July 22 is a step towards dismantling this system. The department said it has launched an extensive investigation into the City of Houston’s alleged failures to provide adequate city services to Black and Latino residents, including whether authorities ignored reports of rampant illegal dumping, which even includes corpses.

Join now for FREE unlimited access to


This announcement follows the DOJ’s first ever 1964 Civil Rights Title VI environmental justice investigation unveiled in November 2021, an investigation into whether Alabama and the Lowndes County Health Department are providing a proper sewage disposal to black residents.

Houston – who lack zoning laws – is one of the cities where the modern environmental racism movement has begun to coalesce, according to a 2022 law review article by Kirsten Williams. She serves as federal clerk for Magistrate Judge Andrew Edison of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas for the 2022-2023 term, according to her Linkedin page.

In the 1970s, when about 25% of residents were black, 80% of city-owned dumps and incinerators in Houston were in black neighborhoods, according to a study by Robert Bullard, a sociologist and professor at Texas Southern. University.

In Lowndes County, which earned the epithet “Bloody Lowndesfor a brutal campaign of racial terrorism in the 1950s and 1960s, many black and low-income people still lack basic sanitation services. For generations, hundreds of residents have lived with homemade systems that intermittently flood their homes and yards with raw sewage, The Birmingham News reported in July last year.

Lowndes County and Houston officials did not respond to requests for comment. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner criticized the investigation in a July 22 statement, saying the investigation came as a surprise and was “baseless and baseless.”

Title VI gives federal authorities the power to regulate and prosecute discrimination by entities that receive federal financial assistance, including terminating the funding.

The investigations represent the beginning of a long-awaited vindication of the fundamental assertion of environmental racism that minority communities bear the brunt of the myriad pernicious effects of industrial and environmental pollution, often by design.

The federal government recognized the fact of environmental racism in 1994, when former President Bill Clinton issued a guideline Executive Decree which directed federal agencies to address environmental harm on minority and low-income populations. The decision was nevertheless largely symbolic – the order did not contemplate any form of prosecution.

Additionally, Title VI is essentially inactive as far as the Environmental Protection Agency is concerned. The agency sometimes takes decades to investigate complaints of bias, and it has found discrimination only once, according to Williams’ law review article.

The DOJ’s latest ruling gives some hope.

Catherine Coleman Flowers, a climate justice activist, helped bring Lowndes County’s sanitation issues to light in the 2020 book Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. She told me it was important for the DOJ to recognize that “environmental inequality and injustice against the powerless is a crime, whether based on race or income.”

Coleman stopped when I asked about his expectations.

“It’s new to all of us,” she explained. “I just hope the Justice Department stays the course and there are consequences if it finds people have violated the laws and the right to equal protection.”

A Justice Department spokesperson told me that investigators have not yet reached any conclusions in the Houston or Lowndes County case.

The ministry will work with jurisdictions if it finds they are not in compliance with Title VI, “including identifying corrective actions and monitoring compliance with all necessary improvement measures and agreements,” the gatekeeper said. -word.

The Justice Department is likely aiming to achieve settlements that would force policy changes, a long-running strategy with mixed results, at best. Yet a settlement, and even the opening of an investigation, signals prosecutors’ belief that disparate environmental damage — whether negligent or intentional — can constitute a crime.

At present, no one seriously disputes that minority communities are disproportionately forced to accept the consequences of living near industrial facilities, hazardous waste and contaminated water.

The environmental racism theory has been repeatedly confirmed, in studies dating back to the 1970s. The birth of the modern movement is typically related in Warren County, North Carolina, where black residents in 1982 used civil rights movement tactics to protest a landfill project.

Countless examples have made headlines since then.

Lowndes County was actually a key topic of a 2017 statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

“I saw several houses in rural areas that were surrounded by sewage pits,” wrote Philip Alston. “But since the vast majority of white people live in cities, which are well serviced” and “most rural people in areas like Lowndes County are black, the problem does not appear on the government radar screen.”

In 2016, an investigative task force came to the “inevitable conclusion” that the water crisis in Flint, Michigan was a case of environmental injustice based on race.

There is “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, a petrochemical industrial corridor. UN human rights experts called this case “a form of environmental racism” in March 2021, noting that the region was once known as “plantation country” for the number of enslaved Africans forced to work there.

Residents of the Altgeld Gardens complex in south Chicago call their neighborhood the “toxic donut,” according to a Chicago Tribune report in August 2020.

Baltimore has “kids on top” and “lead checks,” a reference to lead poisoning all too common in predominantly black neighborhoods, and associated legal settlements, The Washington Post reported in December 2015.

In virtually every notable case, residents and grassroots activists first identified the problem as one of discrimination.

Bullard, considered one of the founders of the environmental racism movement, said in 2018 that “it didn’t take a rocket scientist” to figure out what was going on, according to a USA Today investigation in September of the year. same year (he added that it actually does take lawsuits and academic data to convince the government and the courts that the problem exists).

Now, again, it is largely the voices of activists and those affected by environmental racism that have pushed the government to act. Hopefully the efforts are more productive this time around.

Join now for FREE unlimited access to


Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which is committed to integrity, independence and non-partisanship by principles of trust.