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Black Alabamians endured poor sewage for decades. Now they may see justice.

‘The fact this has gone on so long without action is significant,’ one top HHS official said over the problems endured by residents of Lowndes County

Fetid water stands outside a mobile home in Hayneville, Ala., last year. (Jay Reeves/AP)
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This article has been updated to reflect the details of a 2017 study about potential hookworm cases in Lowndes County, Ala., and the fact that state officials say no confirmed cases have been documented. The article also has been updated to reflect that, despite the findings of federal investigators, the current agreement does not "constitute a finding of noncompliance" against the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Black residents in a rural Alabama county have suffered inadequate access to sanitation systems, faced burdensome fines and liens, and had serious health risks plaguing their community ignored, according to a landmark environmental justice agreement announced Thursday by the Biden administration.

“Today starts a new chapter for Black residents of Lowndes County, Ala., who have endured health dangers, indignities and racial injustice for far too long,” Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in announcing the agreement with local health officials and the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Monday’s agreement comes 18 months after the federal government launched an investigation into the situation in Lowndes — and after years of complaints from civic activists about sewage backups caused by failing septic tanks and exacerbated by climate change, including increased flooding.

“Overall, it’s a great day,” Catherine Coleman Flowers, who founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and has long worked to improve the sanitation problem in Lowndes, said in an interview Thursday. “It’s one step. And Lowndes County is just one of the many counties across the United States that is grappling with this particular issue. … It’s a first step. But it’s historic.”

Investigators from the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services found that ADPH’s enforcement of sanitation laws “threatened residents of Lowndes County with criminal penalties and even potential property loss for sanitation conditions they did not have the capacity to alleviate.”

Their investigation also found that officials engaged in a “consistent pattern” of inaction and neglect concerning the health risks associated with raw sewage that permeated the soil and lingered near numerous homes. Alabama health officials were aware of the “disproportionate burden and impact” the problems imposed on Lowndes residents, investigators said, but they “failed to take meaningful actions to remedy these conditions.”

In a statement Thursday afternoon, ADPH underscored that it cooperated with the federal investigation and “maintains that it has never conducted its on-site sewage or infectious diseases and outbreaks programs in a discriminatory manner.”The current agreement, the agency noted, does not “constitute a finding of noncompliance."

“ADPH is pleased to have been able to reach this agreement, and looks forward to its implementation to benefit residents of Lowndes County,” the agency wrote.

For now, the central problems that led to the federal probe remain.

“In this community, literally, kids can’t go play outside. … You can’t step outside without seeing and smelling what is happening, in a way that affluent, White communities do not face,” Melanie Fontes Rainer, director of HHS’s Office for Civil Rights, said in an interview Thursday. “The fact this has gone on so long without action is significant.”

A litany of actions could now be on the way for the nearly 10,000 residents in Lowndes, a sparsely populated county located between Selma and Montgomery, where many people live in unincorporated areas that are not connected to municipal sanitation systems.

Nearly three-quarters of residents are Black, according to the latest census, and large numbers lack access to even the most basic municipal sewer systems — a consequence of years of underinvestment in infrastructure in poor and minority communities, environmental advocates said.

On rainy days, septic systems that residents rely on to treat waste often fail to drain properly into the region’s heavy clay soil. Raw sewage bubbles up into yards and homes. Federal officials said the high cost of purchasing septic tanks has led some residents to instead rely upon inadequate and stopgap measures, including using crudely constructed pipes or ditches to redirect wastewater away from their homes.

According to one 2017 study, stool samples from some Lowndes residents who were tested showed evidence of hookworm, an intestinal parasite once thought to be largely eradicated in the South that hatches in moist soil and latches onto barefooted humans. ADPH has said that repeat testing has failed to confirm cases of hookworm.

Federal officials said they hope Thursday’s voluntary agreement will begin to alter the current reality in Lowndes.

In announcing the agreement, investigators said ADPH “fully cooperated” with the federal inquiry, and that the Justice Department and HHS agreed to suspend their ongoing investigation if Alabama officials follow through on a series of promised actions. Those include:

  • Suspending the enforcement of sanitation laws that result in criminal charges, fines, jail time and potential property loss for Lowndes residents who lack the means to purchase functioning septic systems.
  • Undertaking a “comprehensive assessment” of the septic and wastewater needs for residents in Lowndes, and outlining a “meaningful path” to improve access to adequate systems.
  • Working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess health risks to different populations from exposure to raw sewage, and working with the CDC to adopt any public health recommendations.
  • Developing a public health awareness campaign using radio, print ads, fliers, mailers and door-to-door outreach, in an effort to “ensure residents receive critical health and safety information.”
  • Creating a “sustainable and equitable” plan within one year to improve public health and infrastructure in Lowndes County. The focus will be on improving access to adequate sanitation systems and alleviating health risks that come with exposure to raw sewage.
  • Transparency and collaboration with the local community. The agreement compels ADPH to “consistently engage with community residents, local government officials, experts in wastewater, infrastructure, soil and engineering, and environmental and public health experts and advocates” — and to inform the community at least quarterly on what progress is being made.

The effort to create a fairer and less toxic system for residents in Lowndes is in line with President Biden’s broader push to right long-standing environmental injustices around the country, which disproportionally fall upon low-income and minority communities.

Biden has ordered that all federal agencies take environmental justice into account in their decision-making, and he established a White House advisory council on the issue made up of veteran activists and experts. The administration also has said that it plans to ensure that 40 percent of new federal investments in clean energy and other climate-related initiatives go to communities that historically have been marginalized and overburdened by pollution.

Earlier this year, the administration began to roll out the first $100 million in environmental justice grants made possible by last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. The grants, which will be overseen by a new office of environmental justice and external civil rights at the Environmental Protection Agency, are among the first of an anticipated $3 billion in block grants that Congress created in August as part of Biden’s landmark climate bill.

“Unacceptable,” was how EPA Administrator Michael Regan described the situation in Lowndes after a visit last year, calling access to safe drinking water and sewer systems a basic right.

In a speech the following day, Regan said the struggles in Lowndes show “injustices that folks have been living with for decades — pipes protruding from the side of their homes, spilling waste into the same places where their children play.”

“The good people of Lowndes County show us that the fight for civil rights is inseparable from the fight for environmental justice, for health justice, for racial justice, for economic justice,” Regan added. “We cannot be for one without the other.”

Fontes Rainer said she believes Thursday’s agreement is a tangible step toward long-overdue justice for residents in Lowndes, but that it won’t be the last place where historic wrongs must be reversed.

“I hope that this agreement will serve as a warning sign and a notification to communities everywhere that this is not acceptable,” she said.

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