The Justice Department announced Thursday that it has reached an interim resolution agreement with the Alabama Department of Health in Lowndes County after its environmental justice investigation revealed evidence of racial discrimination in the county’s ongoing sanitation crisis.
At a press conference in Hayneville, Alabama, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division Kristen Clarke recognized that Black rural residents of Lowndes County have lacked access to basic sanitation services for generations.
“[T]hese residents have been exposed to raw sewage in their neighborhoods, their yards, their playgrounds, schools and even inside their own homes. They have had to deal with sickness, disease and the public health risks that result from their reliance on straight-piping,” Ms. Clarke said.
“In fact, during our investigation, we heard from many Lowndes County residents who recounted that they could not recall a time when things were any different. Enough is enough.”
EJI began reporting on the issues low-income residents in Lowndes County were facing related to wastewater management nearly a decade ago. We advocated for families and residents who had long suffered from neglect by local officials.
In 2021, the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services began investigating whether state and local public health agencies’ wastewater disposal and infectious disease and outbreaks programs discriminate against Black residents of Lowndes County in violation of federal civil rights laws.
The investigation began after EJI Rural Development Manager Catherine Coleman Flowers, who grew up in Lowndes County and was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant for her environmental justice work, filed a civil rights complaint alleging these agencies not only neglected to provide basic services to Black and low-income residents, but also had residents arrested and fined because they were too poor to purchase new septic systems costing as much as $30,000.
EJI engaged tropical medicine experts who reported in 2017 that 34.5% of participants in Lowndes County tested positive for hookworm and other tropical parasites that can cause developmental delays in children.
And in 2019, Ms. Flowers called on Congress to address this deep-seated public health problem, testifying that, since 2002, she had visited homes where, each time it rains, sewage comes back into the house through either the toilet, bathtub, or both.
As many as 80% of homes in Lowndes County lack reliable sewage systems, the Montgomery Advertiser reported last year.
Just 18 months into their investigation, federal prosecutors have found evidence that raises “significant concerns” about civil rights violations, including evidence that:
- ADPH has engaged in a consistent pattern of inaction and/or neglect concerning the health risks associated with exposure to raw sewage
- ADPH’s infectious diseases and outbreaks policies and procedures in Lowndes County may have deviated from standard protocols employed elsewhere in Alabama
- raises concerns about ADPH’s role in the enforcement of laws that criminalize and threaten liens against residents who cannot afford functioning septic systems
- ADPH has not collected data to sufficiently monitor, track, and abate public health nuisances caused by improper wastewater management in Lowndes County
- ADPH was aware of the issues and the disproportionate burden and impact placed on Black residents in Lowndes County, but failed to take meaningful actions to remedy these conditions.
In light of these findings, Alabama agreed to take steps to address the crisis. The interim resolution agreement is the first environmental justice settlement ever secured by the Justice Department under federal civil rights laws.
“Today starts a new chapter for Black residents of Lowndes County, Alabama, who have endured health dangers, indignities and racial injustice for far too long,” Ms. Clarke said in a statement.
The agreement requires ADPH to:
- stop enforcing laws that lead to criminal charges, fines, imprisonment, and property loss for residents who cannot afford functioning septic systems
- increase data collection about onsite wastewater management systems in Lowndes County
- work with the CDC to measure public health risks from exposure to raw sewage and adopt CDC’s public health recommendations
- develop public education and awareness campaigns to make sure that residents and health care providers are aware of these risks, and
- within one year, develop a long-term public health and infrastructure improvement plan to improve access to adequate sanitation systems.
It also requires the State to engage with residents, local officials, and experts as it implements reforms.
A History of Racial Injustice
Lowndes County is one of 13 counties that make up Alabama’s “Black Belt”—named for the dark, clay-like soil that was prized for growing cotton during the enslavement and sharecropping eras. Today, that same nonabsorbent soil makes it all but impossible to install and operate conventional septic systems.
Alabama’s Black Belt counties are some of the poorest in the U.S. In Lowndes County, where 72.5% of residents are Black, nearly 30% of the county’s 9,777 residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census.
Lowndes County has a long history of racial discrimination and inequality. White residents’ violent opposition to civil rights there earned it the nickname “Bloody Lowndes.”
Civil rights activism fighting segregation and demanding equal voting rights nonetheless spread throughout the 1960s. Lowndes County and the surrounding Alabama Black Belt became a major battlefield as organizers like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee focused on the area as a place to expose injustice and mobilize a grassroots movement.
After law enforcement brutally attacked voting rights protestors trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on February 18, 1965, photographs and video footage of “Bloody Sunday” made national news. People from across the country heeded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to come to Selma and join the march to Montgomery.
On March 21, 1965, the march set out from Selma, headed for the state capital on a route leading through Lowndes County. On March 22 and 23, the marchers crossed Lowndes County in the rain and camped overnight at the Rosie Steele Farm in Hayneville and the Robert Gardner Farm in Burkville. The march reached Montgomery on March 26, and just four months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
Organizers led by Stokely Carmichael and SNCC began intensive voter registration efforts in Lowndes County, including registration drives, political education classes for local Black residents, and the launch of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), a local independent Black political party that sought to build political power by registering African Americans to vote and adopted the Black Panther as its logo.
The LCFO faced significant backlash. White business owners refused to serve known LCFO members in their stores and restaurants, and Black tenant farmers were evicted from their homes for registering to vote.
Many African Americans were left homeless and unemployed, and SNCC organizers and local leaders worked to purchase tents, cots, heaters, food, and water to establish a “tent city” where some families lived for two years, facing constant threats and violence from white residents.
In 1966, several LFCO candidates lost election campaigns, but the LCFO helped lay the foundation for organizations such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense established by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California. Inspired by the LFCO Black panther logo, the BPP became one of the era’s most radical organizations promoting the ideal of “Black Power.”
In a statement about this week’s settlement, Director Melanie Fontes Rainer of the HHS Office for Civil Rights recognized the connection between Lowndes County’s history of courageous civil rights activism and today’s struggle for environmental justice.
“Environmental justice is a public health issue, and where you live should not determine whether you get sick from basic environmental hazards not faced in other affluent and white communities,” she said. “This community has long been at the heart of the civil rights struggle, and today’s resolution is yet another testament to the ongoing work that is the pursuit of racial justice.”