The Justice Department on Tuesday announced it has launched a landmark environmental justice investigation into the disposal of wastewater by the Alabama Department of Public Health and the health department of Lowndes County.
The federal department said in a statement that investigators with the Civil Rights Division will probe allegations that the departments’ disposal of wastewater discriminates against Black residents of Lowndes County, which is located southwest of Montgomery, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that denies recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating based on race, color or national origin.
The pair of health departments have been accused of disposing of wastewater that diminishes the access of the county’s Black residents to adequate sanitation systems, which “disproportionately and unjustifiably” causes them to bear the risk of adverse health effects and disease — specifically that or hookworm infections.
It is the federal department’s first Title VI environmental justice investigation, it said, adding it has not reached any conclusions concerning the allegations.
“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,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said. “State and local health officials are obligated, under federal civil rights laws, to protect the health and safety of all their residents.”
Clarke explained to CNN that the investigation centers on an area historically called the Black Belt where Black residents with a medium income of $30,000 a year live.
Residents in the area have been affected by these alleged conditions for generations, she said, adding that due to the lack of access to adequate waste disposal they have been forced to resort to “straight-piping bathwater, fecal matter and other waste away from their homes,” which exposes them to diseases.
She said the department is looking into allegations that the state’s health department was aware of the burden placed upon its Black residents and that it failed in its responsibility over the disposal of wastewater, putting Black residents in Lowndes County at a comparatively higher risk of illness.
The Alabama Department of Health said in a statement that it was “reviewing the information” while being in contact with the Departments of Justice and of Health and Human Services.
“ADPH will not publicly comment on allegations made in the complaint while the investigation is pending,” it said. “ADPH is committed to cooperating with the investigation agencies to have this matter resolved as quickly as possible.”