Department of Justice, ADPH secure agreement in Lowndes County sewer issues

Published: May. 4, 2023 at 7:04 AM CDT
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LOWNDES COUNTY, Ala. (WSFA)- The Department of Justice, along with Health and Human Services says it has secured a critical agreement in the investigation into the Alabama Department of Public Health in Lowndes County.

According to the DOJ, the investigation uncovered evidence that the ADPH neglected and failed to act on Lowndes County water problems. Under the agreement, ADPH has agreed to take a number of actions to address public health in Lowndes County including:

  1. Suspending Criminal Penalties and Liens: ADPH will suspend enforcement of sanitation laws that could result in criminal charges, fines, jail time, and potential property loss for residents in Lowndes County who lack the means to purchase functioning septic systems. ADPH will ensure that Lowndes County residents are informed about the suspension of the criminal penalties and liens.
  2. Examining Public Health Risks within Lowndes County: ADPH will coordinate with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to measure the level of health risks different populations experience from raw sewage exposure. ADPH agrees to work collaboratively with the CDC and adopt any public health recommendations provided by the CDC.
  3. Launching a Public Health Awareness Campaign: ADPH will develop a public health awareness campaign using radio, print ads, flyers, mailers, door-to-door outreach, and other appropriate ways to ensure residents receive critical health and safety information related to raw sewage exposure.
  4. Providing Public Health Educational Materials for Lowndes County Health Care Providers: ADPH will create or supplement education materials for health care providers for Lowndes County residents, including school-based health centers and community-based organizations, to provide more information on symptoms and illness related to raw sewage exposure.
  5. Conducting Assessment to Determine Appropriate Septic and Wastewater Management Systems: ADPH will conduct a comprehensive assessment to determine the appropriate septic and wastewater management systems for homes within Lowndes County and use that information to prioritize properties to receive systems based on risk of exposure to raw sewage. ADPH cannot use this information for criminal penalties or liens.
  6. ·Creating a Sustainable and Equitable Public Health and Infrastructure Improvement Plan: Within one year, ADPH will create a plan to improve access to adequate sanitation systems and address public health risks associated with raw sewage exposure.
  7. Consistently Engaging with the Community: In carrying out each aspect of the interim resolution agreement, ADPH will consistently engage with community residents, local government officials, experts in wastewater, infrastructure, soil and engineering, and environmental justice advocates. ADPH must also engage with community stakeholders on at least a quarterly basis regarding its progress in creating and implementing the final Public Health and Infrastructure Improvement Plan.

“This agreement creates a path towards sustainable sanitation solutions,” U.S Attorney Sandra J. Stewart for the Middle District of Alabama. “The measures required in the agreement will improve public health and the environment for the residents of Lowndes County. My office is proud to support the community and the parties in reaching these important goals.”

ADPH released the following statement on the agreement:

The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division opened the investigation into programs being run by the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Lowndes County Health Department in 2021.

The investigation looked to determine whether policies and practices caused Black Lowndes County residents “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.”

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

“Sanitation is a basic human need, and no one in the United States should be exposed to the risk of illness and other serious harm because of inadequate access to safe and effective sewage management,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a 2021 release. “State and local health officials are obligated, under federal civil rights laws, to protect the health and safety of all their residents. 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.”

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