Lowndes county wastewater under spotlight again
Published 5:05 pm Monday, March 13, 2023
The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ), headed by activist Catherine Coleman Flowers, filed a Civil Rights complaint against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) on March 6.
The complaint was filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, according to Anne Larimer Hart of FGS Global, and alleged discrimination in how the state distributes funding for wastewater infrastructure by withholding resources from communities of color lacking proper sanitation access.
“Many Alabama residents, especially in Black communities, lack access to a centralized sewage utility and must rely on expensive individual household onsite sanitation systems, which often fail,” Hart said in a press release. “Those who cannot afford a functioning onsite system are forced to resort to makeshift straight pipes that discharge raw sewage outdoors. This threatens people’s health, degrades the local environment, and undermines human dignity.”
But recent activity sheds more light on this issue. As reported in The Lowndes Signal in January of this year, Melinda Williams, the District Director for Congresswoman Terri Sewell, said “Sewell worked hard to ensure grant funding reached the underserved Black Belt Communities.”
Alabama Department of Environmental Management Agency Director Lance LeFleur also worked to help the citizens of Lowndes county.
“Hayneville’s sewer improvement project is the first Alabama project to close using Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding,” Lefleur said at a January grant signing in Hayneville. “The needs [in Hayneville] are great.The grant funding is part of $463 million awarded by ADEM in 2022 for public water and sewer improvements through a statewide initiative to repair and upgrade old, failing and overwhelmed systems.”
Wastewater has long been an issue in Lowndes county.
Flowers, founder of CREEJ and known as “the Erin Brockovich of Sewage”, is from Lowndes County.
“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,” Flowers said.
Daniel Blackmon, Region 4 administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told the Signal that the EPA takes the health impact in underserved communities as a serious priority.
“During my visit to Lowndes County, I saw firsthand the hardships and hazards that the town is faced with in its sanitary sewer collection system,” Blackmon told The Lowndes Signal.
Flowers’ complaint noted that money from Alabama’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund could be used to help address the sanitation inequity in the state, Hart said.
“The purpose of the state revolving fund is to provide communities and individuals with low-cost financing or grants for wastewater projects, but ADEM has adopted policies that make it nearly impossible for people who need help with onsite sanitation to access this money,” Flowers said. “These policies disproportionately harm Alabama’s Black residents and perpetuate an unconscionable situation.”
Although Alabama has distributed more than one and a half billion dollars in Clean Water State Revolving Fund money since the program began in 1987, no money has ever been awarded to support onsite sanitation needs, Hart said.
However, according to the retired Director of the Alabama Department of Public Health, Bureau of Environmental Services, Sherry Bradley, who is a Lowndes county resident, strides and improvements are being made every day.
“Let me explain how it works,” Bradley said. “ADEM regulates the bigger system, like the sewer treatment plant that the city [of Hayneville] is on. The Health Department regulates the on-site septic tank system on people’s land.
“From what I can see, everything is going right at ADEM. [Flowers] needs to look at her county commissioners, because they are the ones that are in charge of their county.”
According to Bradley, who now heads the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program, crews are working right now, putting in new systems.
“We’ve committed to put in about 175 systems,” Bradley said. “These systems cost about $28,000 each. If we get more money when this money runs out, we will install more systems.”
Manish Bapna, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, views the situation differently.
“There is an ugly pattern of neglect of wastewater infrastructure in majority Black communities, from rural to urban, that is forcing far too many people across the country to endure unhealthy and unjust living conditions,” said Bapna.
About five years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture held a communitywide meeting to ask,We have a grant here. Who wants to apply for it?”
“No one from Lowndes county said, ‘I want to apply for it,’ but I did,” said Bradley. “But I also had to raise 25% in match money. And I did.”
But Bradley said changes occurred in Lowndes county, changes that altered the course of progress.
“When Charlie King came in and did away with everything, I walked away and we started the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program,” Bradley said. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and installing septic tank systems.”
Flowers, Bapna, and Hart agree the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of External Civil Rights Compliance should investigate Alabama’s chronic water infrastructure.
If the agency views the situation through the lens of civil rights, doing that will ensure that ADEM and the State of Alabama eliminate the racially discriminatory effects of their current practices, Hart said.
But Bradley asked the question, “Where are the facts? There’s over 65 system’s that have already been put in around Lowndes county. LeFleur signed over a $10 million grant to the City of Hayneville.
“We’ve had a lot of local interference. Every time we start working, we get local officials going up to the people’s houses and saying don’t get on this program. It’s heartbreaking to know that people need help and you’ve got people in the county that’s fighting against it.”
Bradley said this is not the first time she has come up against a wall of frustration.
“I’ve been through this before,” Bradley said. “They have their own agenda and I don’t know what it is. The BBUWP works out in the boonies where there is no city sewer. We put in septic tank systems for those who want it.”
She added that 35% of all the ADEM funding goes to the Black Belt area.
For more information go to www.bbuwp.org.