Groups say Alabama discriminated in use of wastewater money

Published 9:01 pm Monday, March 6, 2023

Environmental organizations filed a civil rights complaint against Alabama on Monday, accusing the state of discriminating against minority communities in how it distributes funding for wastewater infrastructure, including money for families who need help dealing with raw sewage in their yards.

The complaint filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains Alabama’s policies for distributing money from a revolving fund have left behind many poor households by making it “impossible for people who need help with onsite sanitation to access this money.”

“This country’s neglect of wastewater infrastructure in majority Black communities — both urban and rural — is resulting in a hygienic hell for far too many people. A hell that climate change is only making worse,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, which was one of the organizations that filed the complaint.

National environmental and social justice activists have long tried to put a spotlight on sanitation problems in Alabama’s Black Belt region, where intense poverty and inadequate municipal infrastructure have left some residents dealing with raw sewage from broken or outdated septic systems.

The complaint maintains that Alabama’s policies for distributing money from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a federal-state partnership that provides communities low-cost financing for infrastructure, make it impossible for people who need help with onsite wastewater systems benefit.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management disputed the claim, and said audits have shown the agency to be in compliance with federal rules.

“In 2022, 34% ($157 million) of the $463 million of drinking water and wastewater funding awarded by ADEM went to Black Belt counties, where 10.6% of Alabama’s population resides. Disadvantaged Black Belt areas received funding at three times the rate of other areas,” the state agency wrote in a statement.

Federal and state officials have vowed in recent years to address sanitation problems through money in the American Rescue Plan — a portion of which state officials steered to high-need water and sewer projects — and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. Federal and state officials in January marked the start of a $10 million project aimed at repairing and upgrading Hayneville’s failing sewer system, which has left residents dealing with pools of raw sewage at their homes.

The complaint filed Monday argued many people in the region aren’t connected to a sewer system and can’t afford adequate on-site systems. Maintaining septic tanks has typically been the responsibility of a homeowner. However, the dark rich soil for which the Black Belt region is named — and that once gave rise to cotton plantations — also makes it difficult for traditional septic tanks, in which wastewater filters through the ground, to function properly. Some homes in the rural county still have “straight pipe” systems, letting sewage run untreated from home to yard.

“The link between race, poverty, and sanitation inequity in the Black Belt is a product of centuries of racism and discrimination that can be traced directly to slavery, sharecropping, and enforced racial segregation,” the complaint stated

The Natural Resources Defense Council, represented by Southern Poverty Law Center, also signed the complaint, which was filed under a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination in programs that receive federal funds.