The Department of Justice will probe into claims concerning the state of Alabama’s wastewater management program that allegedly discriminates against Black residents.
Speaking to the press on a call Tuesday morning, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the department’s Civil Rights Division said they have received various statements that the state and county officials “failed to carry out their responsibilities to abate raw sewage conditions, thereby placing Black residents of Lowndes County at higher risk for disease,” Clarke said, according to The Hill.
Lowndes County is a predominantly low-income area situated between Selma and Montgomery. The median household income is about $30,00 and 70% of the residents are African American, making the county one of the poorest in the U.S. The people of Lowndes have raised their concerns for years about the inability to connect to the municipal sewer systems, according to The Guardian. Most residents have been forced to install private septic tanks on their property, which comes with a price tag of up to $15,000. With extreme rainfalls, most septic systems will experience overflow or malfunction, and their upkeep proves to be a financial burden for impoverished residents.
Clarke referenced a 2017 Baylor University report that concluded the outbreak of hookworm was linked to the county’s substandard sanitation system, and she also reiterated the castigation of the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. The Baylor study discovered that more than 30% of Lowndes County’s residents were diagnosed with hookworm, an intestinal parasite that spread throughout North America over 100 years ago, but was thought to have disappeared in the U.S. between the 1950s and 1980s, according to NPR. Researchers from Baylor College of Medicine oversaw the study with the nonprofit Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, which was later renamed the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.
“For generations, many residents have had little choice but to resort to the practice of straight piping,” Clarke said, a practice that depends on pipes and ditches, leading sewage away from the property into open areas. However, in certain situations raw sewage is piled up in people’s backyards, sinks, toilets and bathtubs.
“The justice department is committed to fully enforcing our federal civil rights laws to address the legacy of environmental injustice that we face across the country. That commitment includes the failure to provide basic wastewater infrastructure, in historically marginalized and overburdened communities of color,” Clarke said.
If the allegations against Alabama and Lowndes County are found to be true, they will be in breach of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination based on race by any institution that collects federal funds. This is the first Title VI environmental justice investigation that is associated with a beneficiary of department funds, according to the DOJ.
“Sanitation is a basic human need,” Clarke said, according to The Guardian. “Bold action is needed to ensure that no one in this country is unjustifiably subjected to illness or harm resulting from inadequate access to safe sewage services.”