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Houston’s People of Color Neighborhoods “Unofficially Zoned” for Garbage

July 20, 2014

Houston Protest at Whispering Pines Landfill 1978

HOUSTON – The Zero Waste Houston Coalition, a group of community, recycling,  environmental and  social justice, and civil rights advocates will hold an Environmental Justice and Waste Summit on Saturday August 2 at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.  The Summit was called in part to highlight Houston’s decision to move forward with the controversial “One Bin for All” trash recycling proposal— a $1 million prize from Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of the Mayors Challenge, a contest rewarding innovation in American cities.  The Summit organizers have lined up local and national leaders who can speak with authority on the waste and environmental justice issues in Houston and the nation.

The Summit will confront head on environmental racism, environmental injustice and solid waste challenges facing the city’s low-wealth and people of color neighborhoods which since the 1930s have been “unofficially zoned” for garbage—in a city that does not have zoning. It is worth noting that this discriminatory waste facility siting was first challenged in Houston in the Bean v Southwestern Waste Management Corp. class action lawsuit in 1979, the first legal challenge to environmental racism using civil rights law.

Houston Mayor Anise Parker appointed a ten-member One Bin for All advisory committee. According to an April 15, 2014 City press release, the committee will “provide expertise to the City regarding financing, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, environmental justice and outreach and education issues as the City moves forward to significantly increase its waste diversion. In a city that is held out as one of the “most ethnically diverse large cities” in America,” it is amazing to see the “token” level of gender and ethnic diversity on the advisory committee in 2014.  Only three of the ten advisory members are female.  Similarly, the lack of ethnic diversity on the committee is even more telling. Of the ten members, eight are non-Hispanic whites, one is Asian, and one is black.  There is no Hispanic/Latino on the advisory committee.  These statistics are disturbing given the demographic fact that non-Hispanics whites make up only 25.6 percent of the Houston population; blacks 23.7 percent and Hispanics 44.8 percent.  And there is no grassroots community representation or residents from environmentally “overburdened” neighborhoods on the advisory panel. Clearly, the advisory committee looks nothing like the city.

Studies beginning in the late 1970s and continuing into the 2000s show Houston’s black and brown neighborhoods bearing the brunt of city-owned and privately-owned landfills, incinerators, and garbage transfer stations. This pattern has persisted for more than eight decades.  For a socio-historical account of waste and race in Houston, check out the following sources:

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