DOJ investigating Alabama, Lowndes County over sewer management

Published: Nov. 9, 2021 at 11:35 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 9, 2021 at 6:23 PM CST
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LOWNDES COUNTY, Ala. (WSFA) - The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has opened an investigation into programs being run by the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Lowndes County Health Department to determine if Black residents of that county are being discriminated against.

The environmental justice investigation was announced Tuesday and will include a probe of the state and county wastewater disposal and infectious disease and outbreaks programs. Specifically, the DOJ is looking to determine whether the onsite programs are being operated in a way that violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.

“We will conduct a fair and thorough investigation of these environmental justice concerns and their impact on the health, life, and safety of people across Lowndes County, Alabama,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The DOJ also wants to determine whether the health departments’ “policies and practices have caused Black residents of Lowndes County to have diminished access to adequate sanitation systems and to disproportionately and unjustifiably bear the risk of adverse health effects associated with inadequate wastewater treatment, such as hookworm infections.”

“Sanitation is a basic human need, and no one in the United States should be exposed to risk of illness and other serious harm because of inadequate access to safe and effective sewage management,” Clarke stated. “State and local health officials are obligated, under federal civil rights laws, to protect the health and safety of all their residents.”

Reached for comment, ADPH released the following statement:

“ADPH is reviewing the information communicated to it by DOJ and HHS. ADPH will not publicly comment on the allegations made in complaint while investigation is pending. ADPH is committed to cooperating with the investigating agencies to have this matter resolved as quickly as possible.”

Residents of Lowndes County, located in the state’s poor Black Belt region, have long struggled with sewage-related issues. It’s estimated about 30 percent of the county’s population lives below the poverty line and without access to clean water.

In September, work began on a new underground sewage system in two of the county’s communities, affecting about 1,000 homeowners. In 2019, Hollywood star Jane Fonda came to the county with the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, an organization that works to improve inadequate sewage systems in rural parts of the United States.

The DOJ said this marks the first Title VI environmental justice investigation it’s opened on one of its funding recipients since its grants don’t often go to programs that conduct environmental work.

The Civil Rights Division’s Federal Coordination and Compliance Section is conducting this investigation with the support of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Alabama.

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