For the first time in U.S. history, the Justice Department has concluded an environmental justice inquiry through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, determining that the state of Alabama and Lowndes County discriminated against Black residents for decades.
The findings from the investigation have led to an agreement involving the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Lowndes County Health Department to finally improve wastewater infrastructure in the rural county, where sewage woes have created a health crisis.
But for the hundreds of families who’ve lived amongst their own waste for decades, cleaning up the problem requires much more than pumping cash and infrastructure improvements into the county, where the average household rakes in just $32,000 per year — less than half the U.S. average.
Years of unbearable stenches rising from sinks and toilets have created a physical and mental health crisis, while pushing residents deeper into poverty.
“For years, if every time you flushed your toilet and it came back into your house, why would you ever want to use a toilet anywhere?” said Sherry Bradley, the former director of environmental services at the Alabama Department of Public Health. “If you can understand being in poverty, you already know the struggles that come with that, then having this on top of it.”
The DOJ’s investigation confirmed that the state “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.” Over the past several years, millions of dollars have been made available to state and local offices to help curb the region’s sewage crisis, but the issue has persisted as government agencies have been slow to connect with impacted residents.
While government agencies may have helped prolong the problem, poverty and poor understanding of the magnitude of the issues by residents also played a role, says Bradley, who is now an environmental adviser with the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program. The nonprofit group has received federal funds to help install septic tanks throughout Lowndes County.
A lack of awareness has led to residents going into debt and being taken advantage of by private contractors, further compounding the economic and health challenges they’ve faced.
“I’ve seen too many homeowners tell me ‘Miss Sherry, I gave [a contractor] $2,000, then I look back and they’re gone,’” said Bradley, recounting a recent story where she met an 80-year-old woman who had lost thousands of dollars when attempting to hire a private company to install a new tank system.