Feds Deem Black Community’s Waste System a Civil Rights Violation - Mother Jones

For as long as anyone can remember, the lack of a sanitation system in Lowndes County, Alabama, and resulting reliance on piping human waste directly into septic tanks and local creeks, has made life in the community miserable. After years of organizing and calls to action by the residents of this rural, low-income, and largely Black community, Earthjustice and Alabama grassroots leaders submitted a civil rights complaint, alleging racist neglect by Alabama public health officials. In response, federal authorities launched an investigation.

In a county where almost one in three residents live in poverty, very few could do much about the problem, leaving almost half the county’s homes without access to wastewater infrastructure. A study in 2017 found that rare intestinal parasites persisted in over 30 percent of the Lowndes county residents surveyed, and all of them were Black.

After years of community organizing led by Flowers and others, the federal Justice and Health and Human Services departments launched an investigation in November 2021. They focused on Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin in federally funded programs and activities. They also considered the Affordable Care Act, which explicitly prohibits the exclusion of any individual from services provided by a public health program.

The investigation found that not only did the Alabama Department of Public Health fail to provide basic sanitation to the residents of Lowndes County, but the Lowndes County Health Department actively enforced sanitation laws. It often levied charges on residents who had no control over the sanitary conditions in their community and who often could not afford upgrades.

According to the agreement, the state health department is working alongside federal agencies to correct the situation. The Department of Justice has ordered the agency to immediately stop prosecuting Lowndes County residents for sanitation law violations and take meaningful steps to assess the county’s wastewater needs, develop a plan to address them, and collaborate with the residents to do so. The state health department must provide people with “critical health and safety information” and work with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess health risks to the population. It must also develop a plan within a year to improve public health in the county. Federal agencies may reopen the investigation if officials feel the agreements are not being followed.

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Mother Jones

Locations: Alabama Lowndes County 

Organizations: Earthjustice United States Department of Justice (DOJ) 

Tags: Racism Pollution Discrimination Poverty 

Type: Headlines