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Illegal dumping in Houston: The challenge and who is investigating

Thousands of calls a year, a handful of prosecutions and the proliferation of cameras to catch dumpers

HOUSTON – For decades, illegal dumping has been a challenge in Houston’s lower-income communities.

In most instances, the perps doing the illegal act don’t go far. Usually, it’s in a radius of 3 miles or less from their own home or business, according to multiple city and county officials.

The piles are not difficult to find. KPRC 2 Investigates found several sites during a recent trek through the city.

Houston City Councilwoman Martha Castex-Tatum has seen tons of it in the past. In some months, the numbers have been shy of 10 tons. However, that was early in her tenure and the numbers are now down by approximately 30%, according to Castex-Tatum. The councilmember points to education, a coordinated effort with various management districts as well as a hot team established in the district.

The bottom line for Castex-Tatum, “People should care because this is where we live.”

Tomaro Bell is the Chairman of Public Safety Health for the Super Neighborhood Alliance. Speaking just a few feet from where KPRC 2 Investigates found a dead dog in a bag.

“There is no excuse for this," Bell said. "None.”

Bell cites families and the quality of life issues it raises.

“Children live in this community," Bell said. "Why should they not be able to safely walk around and be able to play in this community without something happening? This is a travesty.”

Many will tell you there is much more work to be done between the city and the community. How much work? The city’s 311 system received over 8,000 calls in 2019 for trash dumping or illegal dumpsites, according to city data. KPRC 2 Investigates obtained the details for all 20,886 calls the City of Houston received from 2018 to this year. You can view the database here. Here’s a sampling.

City of Houston
City of Houston
City of Houston
City of Houston

In three districts, hot teams have been established by council members. The hot teams are tasked with identifying trouble spots and clearing them. The effort also involves law enforcement. Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Allen Rosen is involved with assisting the policing efforts of six city council districts. Those districts now have 49 cameras monitored by Rosen’s teams, with more than 130 total around the city and county. The cameras initiative started emerging in 2016. In all, 1,327 people have been charged since the Precinct 1 Constable’s Office started an Environment Division in 2012.

Rosen’s office has placed several examples of illegal dumping on their YouTube page. The office told KPRC 2 Investigates, some of the people in the videos have been identified and charges have been sent to the Harris County District Attorney’s office where they are pending. However, there are several people they are still asking for the public’s help in identifying and locating. Here is a look at some of the videos.

By the numbers

According to Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office:

  • The Environmental Division started in 2012 with four members. Now, there are nine.
  • Camera started being used to catch illegal dumping in 2016.
  • The initiative started with three cameras. Now there are more than 130.
  • In a partnership with the city, $850,000 has been spent on cameras.
  • There have been 1,327 individuals have been charged since 2012.

Fines and criminal charges for dumping, other public eyesores

The criminal charges for illegal dumping can range from a misdemeanor to a felony, separate from fines. There also are many more eyesores than simply illegal dumping and the City of Houston issues fines for those as well. The fines handed down can range from overgrown lots to stagnant water. Some of the fines can be as low as $200 or as high as $2,000 for things such as not removing and “properly” disposing of dead trees. Here is a look at some of the other fines issued for community eyesores that take place on private land.

Garbage, rubbish and trash

Fines: 1st Offense $50 to $100, 2nd Offense $100 to $1,500, 3rd Offense $200 to $2,000.

City’s position: “It is the owner/occupant’s responsibility to keep the property free from any garbage, trash or rubbish. Junk, trash, litter and rubbish cannot be deposited or allowed to accumulate on the lot or street. It is a violation to place heavy trash or any oversized items on the curb line prior to the Friday before the scheduled collection date.”

Overgrown lots

Fines: 1st Offense $50 to $100, 2nd Offense $100 to $1,500, 3rd Offense $200 to $2,000.

City’s position: “Overgrown weeds, shrubs, grass, and vegetation are fire and safety hazards. The property owner/occupant is responsible for maintaining weeds and grass at 9 inches or less and brush and shrubbery at 7 feet or less.”

Dangerous buildings

Fines: $200 to $2,000.

City’s position: Windows, doors and other openings on vacant buildings and structures must be kept locked and covered to prevent unauthorized entry. A property owner may be required to board up a building/structure if it becomes vacant and is not secured. Storage sheds and garages must also be secured.

To avoid fines: Close and secure all windows, doors and other openings on vacant buildings and structures. Purchase a permit to repair or secure the building.

Broken fences

Fines: $200 to $2,000.

City’s position: “It is the property owner/occupant’s responsibility to keep all fences and accessory structures, including detached garages and sheds, in structurally sound condition and in good repair.”

Junk motor vehicles

Fines: $200 to $2,000.

City’s Position: “A junk motor vehicle is any vehicle, visible from a public place or public right-of-way, that is: (1) wrecked, dismantled, or discarded, (2) is inoperable and remains inoperable for a continuous period of more than 30 days on private property, and (3) displays an expired license plate or does not display a license plate. Any such vehicle must be screened by completely enclosing the vehicle in a building. Car covers, tarps, bamboo shades and other types of materials are not acceptable screening.”

Discharging raw sewage

Fines: $200 to $2,000.

City’s Position: “It is the property owner/occupant’s responsibility to provide and maintain, in good condition, connections that discharge sewage from the building to the public sewer systems or an approved septic system.”

Permitting conditions that may attract rats

Fines: $100 to $2,000.

City’s Position: “A property owner/occupant may not accumulate lumber, boxes, barrels or similar materials that may be used as a harborage for rats. Control of rat infestations is the responsibility of the occupant/owner.”

Stagnant water

Fines: 1st Offense $50 to $100, 2nd Offense $100 to $1,500, 3rd Offense $200 to $2,000

City’s Position: “Accumulation or collection of stagnant water may become a breeding place for mosquitoes and presents a health and safety risk.”

Other fines

Tires: $250 to $2,000.

Boats/Trailers: $200 to $2,000.

Appliances: $200 to $2,000..$250 to $2,000.

Open Excavations Left Unprotected: $250 to $2,000

Avoiding fines

The best solution to avoiding fines for the above infractions listed is to properly repair, replace or in some cases like a discharge, correct. The city also says boats on lots should be properly elevated at least six inches above the surface of the lot and covered. More can be found at houstontx.gov.


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