The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have reached an interim settlement with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) following years of discrimination by the state agency that threatened the public health of Black residents.
This settlement agreement marks the first time the DOJ has secured a resolution agreement in an environmental justice investigation under federal civil rights laws.
The DOJ probe came in the aftermath of a 2018 civil rights complaint against Lowndes County and the state of Alabama filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ). The complaint stated that the Alabama Department of Public Health and Lowndes County Health Department discriminated against Black residents by mismanaging their sewage disposal program and denying a credible hookworm outbreak.
The DOJ released a statement Thursday saying: “Today starts a new chapter for residents of Lowndes County, Alabama, who have endured health dangers, indignities, and racial injustice for far too long.”
In response to the finding, Catherine Flowers, the founder of CREEJ said the following: “I’m grateful that the DOJ investigated our Title VI complaint involving sanitation injustice and will hold the state accountable. This agreement should improve the lives of Black residents of Lowndes County whose health has been so compromised by the neglect and abuse the health agencies caused.”
The numerous required actions include: suspending the enforcement of sanitation laws that can result in criminal penalties or jail time for lacking the ability to afford septic systems; launching a public health awareness campaign; and conducting a comprehensive assessment of appropriate septic and wastewater management systems, prioritizing properties based on risk exposure to raw sewage.
Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, agencies receiving federal money cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Discrimination includes any decision that has an unjustified and unequal impact.
“Lowndes County residents should never have been targeted and punished for not having enough income to afford functional septic system services,” said Flowers. “Residents faced both racism and the criminalization of poverty by county health officials and the state.”
The majority of residents in Lowndes County do not have access to a municipal sewer system. But septic systems are expensive and regularly fail in Alabama’s Black Belt, which includes Lowndes County, due to its hard, clay-like soil (once prized for growing cotton). Thus, low-income residents in this overwhelmingly African-American County often rely on PVC pipes that carry human waste to open trenches, which overflow during heavy rains.
Instead of working to address the problem, the state made it a misdemeanor to use such survival measures for sewage disposal, charging a $500 fine and potentially jail time. Furthermore, the state had a track record of prosecuting only Black residents for sewage violations, in essence punishing them for lacking access to wastewater services.
Earthjustice attorney Anna Sewell who assisted CREEJ in filing the complaint said the following: “I’m hopeful the people of Lowndes could finally see some justice as a result of the DOJ’s and HHS’s interim agreement with ADPH. Systemic racism has not only affected the quality of life for these residents but also their health.”
“I hope this is the first step towards long overdue reforms to correct the systemic problems and bring about greater equity,” she added.
A 2017 peer-reviewed published study from Baylor University found that 34.5% of participants in a Lowndes County study tested positive for hookworm, a parasite linked to improper sewage. Yet, the state’s health department and the county’s health department failed to fulfill their legal obligation to investigate or address the causes. And the state health department posted a misleading notice on its website, saying that no presence of hookworm was found in Lowndes County.
The “Black Belt” originally referred to the color of the soil in this region of Alabama but the term is also associated with the cotton plantations, where enslaved African Americans were forced to labor. Lowndes County was also a center of the struggle for voting rights in the Deep South during the Civil Rights Movement.
Poverty is divided starkly along racial lines in Lowndes County. Black residents make up nearly 75% of Lowndes County, yet their median income is only $23,519 — far less than half the $61,552 that White households bring in.
While only 8.1% of White residents live below the poverty line in Lowndes, 33% of African Americans live in poverty.
Flowers is co-vice chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. She was recently named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people of 2023. She’s also the author of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret.