The Justice Department has launched an environmental justice investigation following allegations that the city of Houston has used Black and Latino communities as sites for illegal dumping, reports the Washington Post.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who leads the Civil Rights division of the DOJ, stated that the inquiry will focus on the northeast section of Houston which includes the neighborhoods of Trinity and Houston Gardens. According to the report, the probe was launched when Lone Star Legal Aid began documenting the complaints of residents who said their neighborhoods were subject to  “dumping of furniture, tires, medical waste, automated bank teller machines, dead animals and even human bodies.”

“The complaint we received indicates the issues extend back years,” Clarke said. “It’s deeply troubling to see the reports of the items regularly dumped and abandoned in Black and Latino communities.”

Clarke explained that illegal dumping can disadvantage neighborhoods in numerous ways by attracting rodents and mosquitoes, cause diseases, contaminate drinking water, obstruct sewer drainage and lower property values.

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.”

Dinn also noted neighborhood residents had “carefully documented hundreds of incidents of illegal dumping in the residential streets around a local garbage dump” and registered each complaint through the city’s 311 system, but had to wait months for assistance while more affluent neighborhoods garnered quick responses.

“This is not a one-off problem,” she said. “The city has basically allowed this community to be used as a landfill.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston, who’s a Democrat, fired back at the DOJ’s accusations calling the federal investigation “absurd, baseless, and without merit.” 

“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,” Turner said in a statement. “This DOJ investigation is a slap in the face to the City and the many people who diligently work to address illegal dumping daily and prevent environmental injustice,” he continued

He added that his administration has a track record of prioritizing underserved communities of color and that they were not given advance notice of the probe.

Turner noted that his administration has installed surveillance cameras to catch violators and has spent millions of dollars to remove bulk waste. Also, the city doubled the fines for illegal dumping from $2,000 to $4,000 last year,

“While he vehemently disagrees with the probe, Turner stated that his office would cooperate with investigators and that they will soon discover that Houston “does not discriminate in its responses to neighborhood health and safety issues.”

“In America, your zip code often is a key determinant of your cancer risk … and even your expected life span,” said Todd S. Kim, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources division. “It’s true that any of us could be exposed to environmental contamination, but it’s also true that communities of color, low-income communities and tribal communities bear these hardships disproportionately.”