In Rochelle, Georgia, a town that recently made national news for its racially segregated prom, a group of African-American citizens is suing their city government for discharging the city’s raw sewage onto their properties.
White residents of Rochelle live on the south side of the city’s railroad track. African-Americans live on the other side. The city has repaired and updated its sewage pipes on the south (white) side of the tracks but not on the African-American side. As a result, untreated sewage backs up and overflows into the streets and the yards of residents on the north side of the tracks.
On behalf of those residents, Earthjustice today has notified the city that if problems are not fixed in 60 days, it will file suit under the Clean Water Act to stop the unpermitted discharges of raw sewage from manholes, broken pipes and a ditch. The suit would also prevent the city from bypassing its sewer system and endangering public health by forcing citizens to release sewage into their yards in order to keep it out of their homes. These discharges and bypasses are violations of the Clean Water Act.
The city’s sewage conveyance pipes date back to the 1940’s. Sewage backs up in underground pipes during heavy rains, making it flow up into African-Americans’ houses through bathtub and shower drains. To keep the sewage out of their houses during heavy rains, residents remove plugs from sewage pipes to make the sewage pour into their yards instead of their houses.
The residents have to shovel and bury fecal matter, toilet paper and other noxious debris left in their yards after sewage overflows, which have taken place three or four times a year for decades. Sewage also overflows from manholes and broken pipes into a ditch along the north side of Rochelle and out into Mill Creek, which eventually flows to the Suwannee River.
“Sewage overflows my pipes and flows under my house. It’s time somebody did something about it. They [the white community] live comfortably and I want to live comfortably, too,” said Rufus Howard, one of nine Rochelle residents who are represented by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization whose Florida office is handling the litigation.
James Woods, a deacon at Piney Grove Baptist Church said, “We had an Easter program at the church and found raw sewage all over the floors.”
Ms. Sittie Butts explained, “If we hear a bubbling sound, that means it’s backing up with raw sewage. We can’t wash dishes. It goes all over the yard. It smells real bad. We try to keep the kids away.”
“It is embarrassing that anyone in the United States should have to shovel sewage and toilet paper out of their front yard,” said Earthjustice attorney Alisa Coe, who is representing the citizens in this Clean Water Act case. “The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 to stop this kind of thing. If the city can fix it on the south side of the tracks, they can fix it on the north side too.”
The sewage from manholes and broken pipes flows into the streets and to the ditch along the north side of town, which discharges to Mill Creek. This is a clear violation of the Clean Water Act and the city’s permit. Once a favored fishing stream used by people in the neighborhood, Mill Creek is now so foul it is no longer used at all.
Mr. James Woods, a deacon at Piney Woods Baptist Church:
"We had an Easter program at the church and found raw sewage all over the floors … You get a lot of rain and you can't use a restroom … Raw sewage is still coming out the relief pipe in the front of the church."
Mr. Rufus Howard, homeowner on King St., a nightshift worker with five grown children:
"When it rains it overflows my pipes and raw sewage blows under my house … It goes up into my bathtub and sink and ends up in the backyard … When it happens, I can't take a shower 'till the water goes down … I can't flush the toilet, can't wash and really can't use the toilet.
"They won't do something about it. It's time somebody did something about. They live comfortable and I want to live comfortable, too."
Miss Sitie "Shirley" Butts, lives in her mother Hattie McBurrows's home on Mills St., and is retired:
"If we try to wash or anything, we hear a bubbling sound and that means it's backing up with raw sewage … Raw sewage flows out [of standpipes she installed in her yard]. It happens every 3 to 4 months and is worse when it rains
"We can't wash dishes … It goes all over the yard … You can tell what it is from the odor … It smells real bad … My mother has 3 or 4 great-grands and we try to keep them away [from the sewage]."