MONTGOMERY, Alabama (AP) – The U.S. Department of Justice announced Tuesday that it has launched a historical environmental justice investigation into impoverished Alabama county’s longstanding sewage problems that have resulted in some residents having sewage in their yards.
Federal prosecutors in the department’s Civil Rights Division will investigate whether state and local health officials discriminated against Black Lowndes County’s residents and led them to unjustifiably bear the risk of hookworm infections and other adverse health effects associated with inadequate wastewater treatment, officials said.
“Sanitation is a basic human need and no one in the United States should be at risk of disease or other serious harm because of inadequate access to safe and effective sanitation,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke.
The Alabama Department of Public Health and Lowndes County Health Department must operate their sanitation and infectious disease and outbreak programs on the ground in a safe and equitable manner, officials said. “State and local health authorities are required under federal civil rights laws to protect the health and safety of all of their residents,” said Clarke.
Justice Department officials said officials in Alabama are cooperating, stressing that no conclusions have been drawn about whether there is evidence of racial bias in state and county health departments.
An Alabama Department of Health spokesman said there was no comment on the pending investigation. “ADPH is keen to work with law enforcement agencies to resolve this matter as quickly as possible,” Ryan Easterling wrote in an email.
This is the Justice Department’s first Title VI environmental justice investigation for one of the department’s funded beneficiaries, and federal officials suggested that more will follow as tackling discriminatory environmental and health impacts through enforcement of the country’s civil rights laws is a top priority for the Civil Rights Department .
Sewage problems are well documented in Lowndes County, where at least 26% of the people live in poverty.
The Alabama Black Belt region gets its name for the dark, rich soil that once produced cotton plantations, but the type of soil also makes traditional septic tanks, where sewage is filtered through the soil, difficult to function properly.
The extreme poverty of the region and the inadequate municipal infrastructure contribute to the problem. Septic tank maintenance is usually the responsibility of a homeowner, while local governments maintain the sewer systems. Some houses in the rural county still have straight pipe systems that run untreated sewage from house to yard.
Charlie Mae Holcombe, of Hayneville, told The Associated Press in 2019 how the plumbing system in her small town sometimes retreats and overflows, sending raw sewage into her home and flooding the child’s swing in her yard.
“They had to come and pump it out of my yard in the pump truck,” said Holcombe. âIt’s going back, even in my bathtub. The sewage overflowed in the whole house. “
A 2018 study by Baylor University estimated that about a third of the county’s residents tested positive for low levels of hookworm, an intestinal parasite that typically spreads through human feces. It is most commonly found in non-industrial countries in the southern hemisphere. State health authorities contested the results because of the small sample size and methodology used.