Dennis Pillion, AL.com, June 7, 2023
The new front in America’s civil rights struggle is forming on familiar battlegrounds in Alabama’s Black Belt, and this time the legal fight is not over the right to vote, to attend desegregated classrooms or to survive in overcrowded prisons.
This time, the federal government has raised a difficult question and threatened Alabama with costly repairs over a sweeping societal problem: Does everyone have the right to basic sanitation in their homes?
The federal government now seems to be answering yes to that question, using a civil rights investigation to press Alabama to solve long-standing sewage infrastructure problems in remote and lightly populated areas.
“This is the first time the federal government has done this, which is significant,” said Melanie Fontes Rainer, director of the Office of Human Rights for the Department of Health and Human Services. “And this is not the last.
“This agreement is a marker around the country for folks to take a look at. It’s a marker for folks in this state that public health matters. Environmental justice issues are civil rights matters, and the U.S. government is going to work across the country in any way it can to help with these issues, starting here in Lowndes.”
The EPA defines environmental justice as the fair treatment of all people regardless of race, income or other factors with respect to the development or enforcement of environmental laws.
President Joe Biden’s Administration has been particularly focused on environmental justice in recent years, looking to address situations where large numbers of minority or low-income populations have disproportionately had to bear the burden of things like massive landfills, heavily polluting industrial facilities, “poop trains,” and in the Black Belt, widespread sewage treatment problems.
In this case, the federal government chose to focus on the Alabama Department of Public Health and on rural Lowndes County, a majority-Black county of just under 10,000 people in south Alabama.
In Lowndes, according to the Justice Department, ADPH “engaged in a consistent pattern of inaction and/or neglect concerning the health risks associated with raw sewage.”
Since Biden took office, federal efforts intensified.
Last month, Alabama became the first state to reach an interim settlement agreement with federal authorities on environmental justice grounds.
Alabama agreed to take responsibility for providing residents in Lowndes County, a rural county between Selma and Montgomery, with adequate sewage treatment, whether they can afford it or not.
Much of Lowndes County is too spread out for central sewer lines to be cost-effective, and the dense clay soil makes many septic systems inoperable. Thus many residents have either septic tank systems that don’t work, or no treatment at all, and have resorted to simply “straight-piping” waste onto the ground or in lagoons near their home.
The waste pooling in yards may have contributed to a rise in hookworm in the population. Researchers from Baylor University published a study showing genetic evidence of hookworm among 34% of Lowndes County residents in 2017. That study drew international attention to Lowndes and Alabama, including a visit from a United Nations poverty team, which said conditions seen in Lowndes County were very uncommon in developed nations.
ADPH has challenged the results of the Baylor study, saying the researchers had “used an experimental technology that was not FDA-approved in order to determine whether hookworm genetic material could be identified in stool specimens,” and that those results could not be duplicated using “benchmark confirmatory testing procedure.”
After all the attention, the federal government took an interest. And on May 4, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the HHS Office for Civil Rights announced Alabama had agreed to fix the sewage crisis in Lowndes County and halted the investigation into ADPH.
Now the state has six months to conduct a door-to-door survey assessing the sewage needs in Lowndes County and another six months after that to form a plan to bring some kind of working sewage treatment system to the entire county.
Otherwise, the feds can re-open the investigation, potentially finding that Alabama violated the civil rights of Black residents in Lowndes County by allowing these conditions to persist.
Fixing the sewage problems in Lowndes will take many millions of dollars, but just how much is still a huge question.
Alabama has already devoted significant resources (mostly using federal funds) to play Whack-a-Mole in some of the most egregious problem areas, including $10 million in Hayneville, the Lowndes County seat, and $31 million in Uniontown in nearby Perry County.
Not only is Alabama now tasked with addressing rampant poverty stemming from centuries of discrimination, it’s also fighting geology.
The heavy clay soil that makes up most of Alabama’s Black Belt gave rise to a cotton boom almost 200 years ago, making the land here some of the most valuable in the world and bringing thousands of enslaved Black workers to the area to work on massive plantations.
But that same soil today doesn’t allow water to easily penetrate the ground below. After rain events there are puddles of standing water everywhere, and many traditional septic tank systems – which are designed to let water escape while capturing solid wastes – don’t work properly, if at all.
The complaint that kicked off the Justice Department investigation was filed in 2018, alleging that ADPH hadn’t done enough for Black residents dealing with sewage issues, particularly citing the evidence of hookworm in Lowndes County residents.
But the investigation didn’t start until 2021, after Biden succeeded Donald Trump.
That 2018 complaint was filed by noted environmental justice advocate Catherine Coleman Flowers, a Lowndes County native, who rose to prominence fighting for sanitation equity in Lowndes and elsewhere.
Since then, Flowers has received a MacArthur genius grant for her work and was recently named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the United States. Her 2020 book “Waste: One Woman’s Fight against America’s Dirty Secret,” highlights the struggle for sanitation in Alabama and across the United States.
One of the key components of the 2018 complaint and the 2023 agreement with the Justice Department is the issue that poor residents of Lowndes County could be fined or even imprisoned for failure to have a working sewage treatment system in place. The agreement stipulates that ADPH stop referring violators of those sanitation laws for prosecution.
It’s no surprise that the Biden Administration chose Lowndes as Ground Zero in its new war on inequality.
Lowndes County contains much of the route for the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 that helped galvanize support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.