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CORPUS CHRISTI DESALINATION: DOJ to review civil rights complaint

Posted at 11:37 AM, Feb 14, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-14 12:42:11-05

A complaint filed in 2022 with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alleging discrimination in the proposed location of a Corpus Christi desalination facility has been referred to the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division.

A letter dated February 9, 2024, from HUD states, "the complaint raises questions concerning the legality of land use decisions, policies, and ordinances."

In addition to the referral of the complaint to the DOJ, HUD said it is actively investigating the complaint and will retain jurisdiction over the matter.

For years, Hillcrest has been boxed in by industry and construction and they say the city’s Inner Harbor desalination location is another form of discrimination violating their civil rights.

"This is one block, you're talking about going two more blocks further. The house over there belongs to Mr. Johnson. That house over there on the corner belongs to Mr. Johnson," said Daniel Pena, vice president of the Hillcrest Residents Association.

Pena has lived in the Hillcrest neighborhood for over four decades. And he's one of many neighbors unhappy with the incoming seawater desalination plant.

He lives just a few blocks from the site where the plant will go in the northwest corner of the neighborhood. Right next to refinery row.

"This is a buffer zone that was created by the City of Corpus Christi for the residents of the neighborhood. How they chose to come and put their plant here to ignore the fact that this area was a buffer zone, we can't ever figure that out," Pena said.

The Hillcrest Residents Association and Citizens Alliance for Fairness and Progress, with the help of the non-profit Earthjustice, filed that complaint with HUD and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The fact that they picked a neighborhood where people are actually living was the wrong thing to do,” Pena added.

Erin Gaines, the senior attorney with EarthJustice told KRIS 6 News, “The inner harbor desalination plant, which would be located in the Hillcrest, is just the latest example of this long-standing pattern of discrimination."

Their complaint states the City of Corpus Christi violated Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They do this by building another piece of industrialization in an area that has higher levels of poverty and has predominantly African-American and Hispanic residents.

The complaint also details instances where city officials have referred to Hillcrest as an industrial area and not a neighborhood.

Gaines added that the city has a history of discrimination in land use planning.

"This goes back to when this neighborhood was historically a segregated black neighborhood in the city. And then, the industrialization that has grown up around the neighborhood," Gaines said.

The Hillcrest Residents Association has filed several complaints in the past against the city for similar industrial projects. In 2015, because of one of their complaints against the discrimination of where the Harbor Bridge project is, an agreement was made by a few entities including the city and TxDOT. Hillcrest was promised millions of dollars in investment into their parks, historical sites, and relocation. Some homes were relocated but, Pena says the promise hasn't been filled.

"Nothing has been done,” Pena said. “I believe it's called verbiage. They said when the-they had until the first car crossed the bridge. Well, at the rate this bridge is going, I don't believe it's going to be any time soon."

The complaint also provides evidence of how neighbors in Hillcrest are already adversely affected by refinery row. A few environmental studies were done. One stated Hillcrest residents have 15 years less life expectancy than a wealthy neighborhood 10 miles away.

“We finally had a study done and came out and told the city of Corpus Christi. There's 152 chemicals in the air, you have to do something about it. And so the fact that they chose this to add to it, it's pretty disturbing," Pena said.

KRIS 6 reached out to the city for comment. The city said they were working on a statement however we did not receive it before this story was published.