Raw Sewage and a Raw Deal in Rochelle, GA

Forcing the ruling system to fix the sewage system

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Alisa Coe and Bradley Marshall—attorneys in our Florida office—took off on a two-hour drive last month and ended up 60 years away in the rural Georgia town of Rochelle, where black people live on one side of a railroad track and whites on the other.

You’ve heard of this place if you pay attention to news; last weekend the national media was reporting on the local high school’s first interracial prom … ever.

But even as the media focused on the prom, Alisa and Bradley faced up to the town’s mayor and chief of police, who bullied the two attorneys as they investigated claims that the city’s sewer system routinely dumps raw sewage into the streets and yards of the black community (but not the white community). The mayor used his car to block the attorneys’ car when they drove into a black neighborhood, and then screamed and threatened them with arrest. The chief of police pulled up with his lights flashing and told the duo to call him before coming back to Rochelle.

Those fellas obviously didn’t know who they were messing with.

Alisa and Bradley are members of a legal team led by managing attorney David Guest, who is famous in Florida for such things as ignoring alligators as he wades through the Everglades investigating environmental offenses. The whole team’s infused with that spirit.

So—without calling the chief of police—Alisa and Monica Reimer, another attorney in our Florida office, went back to Rochelle a few days ago, armed with cameras to record evidence of environmental injustice and to document any more intimidation tactics. The bullies stayed away this time, letting the attorneys sign up, as clients, nine African-American residents who are tired of raw sewage bubbling up through manholes and pipes into their lives. After decades of living like this, they want it to end.

No one describes it better than Rufus Howard, a night shift worker who talks softly as he walks about his backyard showing puddles of raw sewage and describing how they can’t use the toilet or shower and can’t wash for days when sewage lines get full. He sums the issue up thusly:

They [white city government] won’t do something about it. They live comfortable and I want to live comfortable, too.

It’s nothing more complicated than that. Rufus and all his friends and neighbors just want the simple comforts of the white community—not the raw sewage. They want nothing more than to flush away sewage, not use shovels to clear it off their properties.

Sixty years ago, folks in towns all over the South were fighting and dying for the unfettered right to vote, the right to sit in the front of buses, to eat in restaurants without checking their skin color at the door, and even for the right to use the bathroom without having to read racial directions on the door. As a very young boy in that bad old South, I saw bathroom signs that said, “White Only” or “Negro Only". Today, so many decades later, those printed signs are gone, but other signs of discrimination persist … all over the yards and streets of folks who asked Earthjustice to help force the ruling system to fix the sewage system on the black side of the railroad tracks.

Yesterday, that help began when Alisa filed an official demand with the city to correct its sewage discrimination or face the wrath of a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit. They have just 60 days. We’ll keep you posted.

Just one more reason why the planet and its people need a good lawyer … like Alisa, Bradley and Monica.

From 2006–2014, Terry was managing editor for Earthjustice's blog, online monthly newsletter and print Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.

The Florida regional office wields the power of the law to protect our waterways and biodiversity, promote a just and reliable transition to clean energy, and defend communities disproportionately burdened by pollution.