DOJ: Evidence shows Alabama’s health policy put Black residents at risk

The agency said Thursday that the Alabama Department of Public Health showed a consistent pattern of inaction and neglect regarding health risks linked to raw sewage.

The U.S. Department of Justice has found evidence that the public health departments of Lowndes County and the state of Alabama discriminated against its Black residents, putting lives at risk with their sanitation practices.

The agency, along with the federal Department of Health and Human Services, released the conclusions on Thursday, stating that the Alabama Department of Public Health showed a consistent pattern of inaction and neglect regarding the health risks linked to raw sewage, the Montgomery Advertiser reported.

“For generations, Black, rural residents of Lowndes County have lacked access to basic sanitation services,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who is with DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, the Advertiser reported, “and as a result, these residents have been exposed to raw sewage in their neighborhoods, their yards, their playgrounds, their schools, and even inside their own homes.”

Alabama health department sewage problems
A federal investigation found the public health departments of Lowndes County and the state of Alabama have sanitation practices that discriminate against Black residents. An agreement aims to address the problems. (Photo: Screenshot/ News)

The DOJ started investigating Lowndes County in November 2021. It was the first time the department had filed an environmental justice investigation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which relates to programs that receive federal funding.

After 18 months, the agency found that Black residents were disproportionately affected by ADPH’s negligence. Many of these individuals need help remembering when they had access to efficient sewage disposal techniques. Prior research in Lowndes County revealed that 80 percent of its residences lack dependable sewage systems.

Clarke noted that residents have endured disease and sickness “that result from their reliance on straight piping,” a low-cost, illegal disposal technique that uses PVC pipes and ditches to send sewage out of homes, frequently resulting in waste puddles close to residences. 

Residents questioned the effectiveness of government agencies’ attempts to address the sewage problems, as the issue persisted for decades despite receiving national attention. 

The Justice Department will halt the federal inquiry in exchange for the state and county public health departments making immediate improvements to policy enforcement and developing a long-term strategy by May 2024.

The agreement calls for ADPH to stop imposing fees, fines and penalties on residents who cannot afford working septic systems.

ADPH must also stop threatening to place liens on people’s homes because of sewage problems and cooperate with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to increase public awareness of health and safety information related to exposure to raw sewage. Increased door-to-door outreach is also expected.

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, who represents Lowndes County in Congress, expressed her hope that her state would completely abide by the DOJ and HHS agreement. 

She maintained she would continue to fight to pass legislation and obtain additional funds at the federal level to address this situation, calling access to adequate wastewater infrastructure a fundamental human right.

“The disproportionate impact that this crisis has on the Black residents of Lowndes County is completely unacceptable,” said Sewell, the Advertiser reported. “This agreement represents a step forward in our continued fight for equitable and safe wastewater systems in the Black Belt” — though the fight is far from over, she added.

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