According to NBC News, while the plumbing systems in some of the houses in Smith’s neighborhood are tied to the county system, they aren’t working properly, or the connections have failed entirely.
“It’s not necessary for this to be going on in 2022,” Smith said. “It just shouldn’t be in the United States. It shouldn’t be. This is the wealthiest country. A sewage system should be a right.”
Many are blaming racism for the lack of a centralized sewage system since the county is predominantly Black and has a poverty rate of 22%, about double the national average. According to NBC News, at least 40% of the county’s homes have inadequate or no sewage systems, resulting in residents having to carry PVC pipes with waste from their homes into open holes in the ground, a method known as “straight piping.”
Following complaints, the Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation in November to assess whether the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Lowndes County Health Department are operating in a manner that discriminates against Black residents.
“I think it is happening because the county is majority Black,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, an environmental activist who grew up in the county. “We’re rural, and we may not speak standard English all the time, so people may think that we’re not smart. But we’re smart enough to know when we’re being screwed.” Flowers noted that she is also concerned that government officials can give penalties and place liens on homes that don’t have proper septic systems, even if people can’t afford them.
The investigation stems from evidence of the state and local departments’ inability to deliver adequate services. The Department of Justice is examining whether the state and local departments are blocking Black peoples’ access to adequate sanitation systems on purpose.
“We will conduct a fair and thorough investigation of these environmental justice concerns and their impact on the health, life and safety of people across Lowndes county, Alabama,” said Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, after launching the investigation.
By blocking their sanitation systems, not only are the residents disadvantaged in terms of infrastructure, but their health is at risk since the chance of parasitic infections increases.
According to The Guardian, a 2017 study conducted by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine found that hookworm was thriving in Lowndes county. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hookworm is an intestinal parasite that was once widespread in North America but had not been detected in the U.S. since the 1980s. The study found that one of every three adults has tested positive for hookworms.
“Sanitation is a basic human need,” Clarke said. “Bold action is needed to ensure that no one in this country is unjustifiably subjected to illness or harm resulting from inadequate access to safe sewage services.”
But lack of septic tanks and sewage are not the only issues rural Alabama faces. According to CBS News, in much of rural Alabama, there is a water crisis due to a lack of running water, indoor plumbing, and sanitation. Most of the cases were in the same county, Lowndes.
“When there is a lot of rain, you cannot flush the toilet,” Perman Hardy, who also lives in Lowndes County, told CBS News. Hardy noted that if he were to flush the toilet, the sewage would be on his home’s floor.
To address similar cases, the Biden administration has requested $1.4 million from Congress to open an environmental justice office within the Justice Department.
According to data collected by state agencies, there were more than 1,200 sewage spills across Alabama in 2016 alone. The number has been expected to increase in recent years. Click here to see a map of sewage overflow in the state.