The new front in America’s civil rights struggle is forming on familiar battlegrounds in Alabama’s Black Belt, and this time the legal fight is not over the right to vote, to attend desegregated classrooms or to survive in overcrowded prisons.
This time, the federal government has raised a difficult question and threatened Alabama with costly repairs over a sweeping societal problem: Does everyone have the right to basic sanitation in their homes?
The federal government now seems to be answering yes to that question, using a civil rights investigation to press Alabama to solve long-standing sewage infrastructure problems in remote and lightly populated areas.
“This is the first time the federal government has done this, which is significant,” said Melanie Fontes Rainer, director of the Office of Human Rights for the Department of Health and Human Services. “And this is not the last.
“This agreement is a marker around the country for folks to take a look at. It’s a marker for folks in this state that public health matters. Environmental justice issues are civil rights matters, and the U.S. government is going to work across the country in any way it can to help with these issues, starting here in Lowndes.”
The EPA defines environmental justice as the fair treatment of all people regardless of race, income or other factors with respect to the development or enforcement of environmental laws.
President Joe Biden’s Administration has been particularly focused on environmental justice in recent years, looking to address situations where large numbers of minority or low-income populations have disproportionately had to bear the burden of things like massive landfills, heavily polluting industrial facilities, “poop trains,” and in the Black Belt, widespread sewage treatment problems.
In this case, the federal government chose to focus on the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and on rural Lowndes County, a majority-Black county of just under 10,000 people in south Alabama.
In Lowndes, according to the Justice Department, ADPH “engaged in a consistent pattern of inaction and/or neglect concerning the health risks associated with raw sewage.”
Since Biden took office, federal efforts intensified.
Biden’s EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Lowndes twice in the past two years. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Biden senior advisor and infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu accompanied him on the second trip.
However, the little-funded state public health agency in the federal crosshairs is better known for vaccine advisories than building infrastructure.
“It’s never been for lack of knowing about it [that the problem has persisted],” said Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris with ADPH. “It’s just that we’ve just never had, you know, the ability or resources to do anything about it.”
Last month, Alabama became the first state to reach an interim settlement agreement with federal authorities on environmental justice grounds.
Alabama agreed to take responsibility for providing residents in Lowndes County, a rural county between Selma and Montgomery, with adequate sewage treatment, whether they can afford it or not.
Much of Lowndes County is too spread out for central sewer lines to be cost-effective, and the dense clay soil makes many septic systems inoperable. Thus many residents have either septic tank systems that don’t work, or no treatment at all, and have resorted to simply “straight-piping” waste onto the ground or in lagoons near their home.
The waste pooling in yards may have contributed to a rise in hookworm in the population. Researchers from Baylor University published a study showing genetic evidence of hookworm among 34 percent of Lowndes County residents in 2017. That study drew international attention to Lowndes and Alabama, including a visit from a United Nations poverty team, which said conditions seen in Lowndes County were very uncommon in developed nations.
ADPH has challenged the results of the Baylor study, saying the researchers had “used an experimental technology that was not FDA-approved in order to determine whether hookworm genetic material could be identified in stool specimens,” and that those results could not be duplicated using “benchmark confirmatory testing procedure.”
After all the attention, the federal government took an interest. And on May 4, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the HHS Office for Civil Rights announced Alabama had agreed to fix the sewage crisis in Lowndes County and halted the investigation into ADPH.
Now the state has six months to conduct a door-to-door survey assessing the sewage needs in Lowndes County and another six months after that to form a plan to bring some kind of working sewage treatment system to the entire county.
Otherwise, the feds can re-open the investigation, potentially finding that Alabama violated the civil rights of Black residents in Lowndes County by allowing these conditions to persist.
Alabama’s Fauci Forced to Tackle Sewage Crisis
The person now legally responsible for fixing the crisis is Dr. Scott Harris, Alabama’s State Health Officer, and head of the ADPH.
For much of the past three years, Harris — a mild-mannered MD with a Masters in public health — was Alabama’s version of Dr. Anthony Fauci, begging and pleading with Alabamians to wear masks and take vaccines to protect against a disease that killed more than 21,000 Alabamians, while reportedly receiving threats to himself and his family.
Now, for the encore, Harris and his department are charged with solving sewage issues in impoverished, rural areas, possibly a first for any state public health agency.
“I would say there aren’t any other state health departments in the country that have been instructed to, you know, help provide sanitation on private property for people who can’t afford it,” Harris said.
“We’re perfectly fine doing that if we have the resources to do that,” he said. “It’s certainly a good thing and we want to make sure people can get help if they can, and if we can do it.”
Underlying all of the debate on Lowndes County are the issues of poverty and responsibility. Who has the ability and the responsibility to provide wastewater treatment where many of the people or limited local governments cannot afford to do so themselves?
“This is an issue of poverty,” Harris said. “The problem is, we have really impoverished people who can’t afford these types of sanitation systems that are needed in that kind of soil.”
How Much Will it Cost? No One Knows
Fixing the sewage problems in Lowndes will take many millions of dollars, but just how much is still a huge question.
Alabama has already devoted significant resources (mostly using federal funds) to play Whack-a-Mole in some of the most egregious problem areas, including $10 million in Hayneville, the Lowndes County seat, and $31 million in Uniontown in nearby Perry County.
Harris said the door-to-door survey required in Lowndes under the agreement will help determine the scope of the project, but there are many unknowns.
Harris said there are between 6,000 and 8,000 households in Lowndes County, some of which may already be connected to municipal sewer lines in places like Hayneville, or have working septic systems. He declined to estimate how many of those would need to be addressed.
“There’s clearly going to be a few thousand households that are potentially touched by this,” Harris said. “I’ve seen numbers in the past that people have speculated on [how many homes no functional sewage treatment], and wondered where they come from.
“I really don’t know what the right answer is.”
Not only is Alabama now tasked with addressing rampant poverty stemming from centuries of discrimination, it’s also fighting geology.
The heavy clay soil that makes up most of Alabama’s Black Belt gave rise to a cotton boom almost 200 years ago, making the land here some of the most valuable in the world and bringing thousands of enslaved Black workers to the area to work on massive plantations.
But that same soil today doesn’t allow water to easily penetrate the ground below. After rain events there are puddles of standing water everywhere, and many traditional septic tank systems – which are designed to let water escape while capturing solid wastes – don’t work properly, if at all.
Alabama researchers are working on developing smaller “hybrid” systems, where smaller clusters of residences are connected to modular treatment systems connected to a larger septic tank, but those are still in the pilot phase.
Addressing the wastewater needs of each residence in Lowndes County will likely require treatment systems of all different shapes, sizes and technologies.
There’s also no clear finish line.
The agreement requires ADPH to conduct the survey and to form a plan based on the results of that survey. It does not contain a set number or percentage of homes that need to be connected to functional sewage treatment systems to satisfy the Justice Department’s interests.
“We don’t have those kinds of measurables in there,” Harris said. “They’ve asked us to take these concrete steps, which we are doing, that satisfies the agreement.
“Obviously, the goal is to try to reach everyone and take care of everyone, but there’s no question that some of that’s just going to be resource dependent.”
Biden Jump-Starts Efforts to Solve Sewage Woes
On their visit to Lowndes County, Vilsack and Landrieu said Biden had specifically told them to fix the sewage problems in Alabama’s Black Belt.
The complaint that kicked off the Justice Department investigation was filed in 2018, alleging that ADPH hadn’t done enough for Black residents dealing with sewage issues, particularly citing the evidence of hookworm in Lowndes County residents.
But the investigation didn’t start until 2021, after Biden succeeded Donald Trump.
“We had responded to the  complaint a little bit,” Harris said. “But the Department of Justice, I don’t know, it just wasn’t prioritized during the during the last administration.
“And then once there was a new presidential administration, the DOJ decided to pursue that.”
That 2018 complaint was filed by noted environmental justice advocate Catherine Coleman Flowers, a Lowndes County native, who rose to prominence fighting for sanitation equity in Lowndes and elsewhere.
After moving back to Lowndes County in the early 2000s, Flowers said she was shocked to find that many families were still dealing with rampant sewage problems and that people could be fined or even arrested for sewage violations that they lacked the funds or ability to correct.
Since then, Flowers has received a MacArthur genius grant for her work and was recently named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the United States. Her 2020 book “Waste: One Woman’s Fight against America’s Dirty Secret,” highlights the struggle for sanitation in Alabama and across the United States.
Flowers said she was hopeful that the new agreement would finally mean positive changes for Lowndes County and elsewhere.
“I think it validates what we have been trying to give voice to for many years,” Flowers said. “And hopefully, this is a step toward a solution to a problem that should have been resolved, not just in Lowndes County, but every rural community throughout Alabama.”
One of the key components of the 2018 complaint and the 2023 agreement with the Justice Department is the issue that poor residents of Lowndes County could be fined or even imprisoned for failure to have a working sewage treatment system in place. The agreement stipulates that ADPH stop referring violators of those sanitation laws for prosecution.
Ryan Easterling, communications director for ADPH, said the agency had already done that in 2017. ADPH self-imposed a moratorium on “taking any legal action on sewage issues,” Easterling said via email.
Since May of 2018, ADPH has issued 17 notices of violation to homeowners in Lowndes County, and all but one had been resolved, Easterling said.
‘Bloody Lowndes’ Is the New and Old Civil Rights Battlefront
It’s no surprise that the Biden Administration chose Lowndes as Ground Zero in its new war on inequality.
Lowndes County contains much of the route for the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 that helped galvanize support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
In the spring of 1965, Blacks made up 80 percent of the population in Lowndes County, but there wasn’t a single Black voter in the county. The county earned the nickname “Bloody Lowndes” after a series of violent clashes between the local white power establishment and Black and white Civil Rights protesters.
Now, the county is the first example of the government forcing action on environmental justice. And while the government is compelling Alabama to solve these infrastructure problems, much of the cost will come from federal funds.
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The agreement stipulates that ADPH should seek funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and other federal grants to conduct its analysis and create an action plan to solve these sewage issues. ADPH will collaborate with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and other federal agencies throughout the project.
ADPH is also engaging in public information campaigns for residents that must be approved by the federal departments.
It’s still too early to estimate costs, or even determine the best methods for eliminating sewage problems in Lowndes County, but all parties are hopeful that Lowndes can once again become a springboard to improve conditions across the country.
“The issue around voting rights, that was Selma and Montgomery and Lowndes County, but it was a national issue,” Flowers said. “And likewise, as we talk about sanitation equity, the center of this is Lowndes County, but this is a national issue, and hopefully it can be addressed.
“This could be a step to helping other communities.”