For the first time in U.S. history, the Justice Department has concluded an environmental justice inquiry through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, determining that the state of Alabama and Lowndes County discriminated against Black residents for decades.
The findings from the investigation have led to an agreement involving the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Lowndes County Health Department to finally improve wastewater infrastructure in the rural county, where sewage woes have created a health crisis.
But for the hundreds of families who’ve lived amongst their own waste for decades, cleaning up the problem requires much more than pumping cash and infrastructure improvements into the county, where the average household rakes in just $32,000 per year — less than half the U.S. average.
Years of unbearable stenches rising from sinks and toilets have created a physical and mental health crisis, while pushing residents deeper into poverty.
“For years, if every time you flushed your toilet and it came back into your house, why would you ever want to use a toilet anywhere?” said Sherry Bradley, the former director of environmental services at the Alabama Department of Public Health. “If you can understand being in poverty, you already know the struggles that come with that, then having this on top of it.”
The DOJ’s investigation confirmed that the state “was aware of the issues and the disproportionate burden and impact placed on Black residents in Lowndes County, but failed to take meaningful actions to remedy these conditions.” Over the past several years, millions of dollars have been made available to state and local offices to help curb the region’s sewage crisis, but the issue has persisted as government agencies have been slow to connect with impacted residents.
While government agencies may have helped prolong the problem, poverty and poor understanding of the magnitude of the issues by residents also played a role, says Bradley, who is now an environmental adviser with the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program. The nonprofit group has received federal funds to help install septic tanks throughout Lowndes County.
A lack of awareness has led to residents going into debt and being taken advantage of by private contractors, further compounding the economic and health challenges they’ve faced.
“I’ve seen too many homeowners tell me ‘Miss Sherry, I gave [a contractor] $2,000, then I look back and they’re gone,’” said Bradley, recounting a recent story where she met an 80-year-old woman who had lost thousands of dollars when attempting to hire a private company to install a new tank system.
“The people who don’t know how to get through the maze have been taken advantage of,” she added.
A ‘punitive’ approach
In addition to creating an infrastructure improvement plan to improve access to adequate sanitation systems for county residents, the agreement outlines that the state and county must quantify the health impacts from decades of mistreatment and stop financially penalizing residents who’ve struggled to maintain proper septic tanks on their own.
It is not uncommon for residents in rural counties to use personal wastewater systems installed in front of their homes rather than a municipal-wide sewage treatment plant run by the local government. However, across Alabama’s Black Belt, the soil which helped drive the plantation industry and slavery regularly erodes sewage septic tanks. As individual systems failed, a 2017 study found that 73% of county residents reported exposure to raw sewage inside their homes, with one-third of residents testing positive for hookworm, a disease once thought to be eradicated in the U.S.
Despite this known reality, across the county, which is 75% Black and has a poverty rate that is 55% higher than the U.S. average, Black residents were regularly imposed with fines, fees, penalties and even the threat of liens being put on their homes for failing to maintain their tanks.
Catherine Coleman Flowers, an environmental activist who grew up in Lowndes County and who has largely been credited with bringing the crisis to national attention in 2017, told The New York Times that Lowndes County stood alone in this discriminatory practice.
Ultimately, residents were experiencing a “double penalty of being criminalized for these injustices” while the local government did little to remedy the situation, said U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke following the conclusion of the investigation.
Given that the county has a history of mismanaging potential funds and opportunities to fix the crisis, the federal government alluded that they may reopen the investigation if officials feel the agreements are not being followed. The Justice Department also said this landmark investigation based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin, would not be its last.