MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- The U.S. Department of Justice said Tuesday that it has embarked on a historic environmental justice investigation into an impoverished Alabama county's longstanding wastewater problems, which have left some residents with sewage in their yards.
Federal prosecutors in the department's civil rights division will examine whether state and local health departments have discriminated against Black residents of Lowndes County and have caused 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 exposed to risk of illness and other serious harm because of inadequate access to safe and effective sewage management,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said.
The Alabama Department of Public Health and the Lowndes County Health Department must operate their onsite wastewater disposal and infectious diseases and outbreaks programs in a safe and equitable manner, officials said. “State and local health officials are obligated, under federal civil rights laws, to protect the health and safety of all their residents," Clarke said.
Justice Department officials said officials in Alabama are cooperating, and they emphasized no conclusions have been reached regarding whether there's evidence of racial bias in the state and county's federally funded health departments.
A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Public Health said they can't comment on the pending probe. "ADPH is committed to cooperating with the investigating agencies to have this matter resolved 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 funding recipients and federal officials suggested there will be more to come, since addressing discriminatory environmental and health impacts through enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws is a top priority of the Civil Rights Division.
Wastewater problems are well documented in Lowndes County, where at least 26% of the people live in poverty.
Alabama’s Black Belt region gets its name for the dark rich soil that once gave rise to cotton plantations but the type of soil also makes it difficult for traditional septic tanks, in which wastewater filters through the ground, to function properly.
The region’s intense poverty and inadequate municipal infrastructure contribute to the problem. Maintaining septic tanks have typically been the responsibility of a homeowner, while local governments maintain sewage systems. Some homes in the rural county still have “straight pipe” systems, letting sewage run untreated from home to yard.
Charlie Mae Holcombe of Hayneville described to The Associated Press in 2019 how the sanitation system in her small city will back up and overflow at times, sending raw sewage into her house and swamping the child's swing set in her yard.
“They have had to come and pump it out of my yard with the pump truck,” Holcombe said. “It’s backing up, even in my bathtub. The sewage has run over all in the house.”
A study by Baylor University in 2018 estimated that about one-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 nations in the Southern Hemisphere. State health officials disputed the findings because of the small sample size and the methodology used.