U.S. Justice Dept launches environmental probe into Alabama wastewater disposal

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By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday launched an environmental justice investigation into whether Alabama’s wastewater disposal practices discriminate against certain Black residents and put their health at greater risk.

The inquiry, which will be led by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, will focus on the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and the Lowndes County Health Department.

It marks the first time the Justice Department has ever in history launched a Title VI environmental justice investigation into one of the department’s grant recipients.

Under U.S. civil rights law, local governments and other entities that receive federal grants are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.

“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,” Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said. 

Some of the adverse health effects on Black residents exposed to raw sewage in Lowndes County have included hookworm infections, she told a media briefing.

Residents are not connected to municipal sewer systems because they live in unincorporated rural areas and, as such, rely on private septic tanks in permeable clay soil.

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Clarke said the Justice Department received allegations on behalf of county residents alleging the Lowndes and state health departments were aware of the health risks from but had failed to do what was necessary to safely dispose of raw sewage.“State and local health officials are obligated, under federal civil rights laws, to protect the health and safety of all their residents,” she said.

In an email to Reuters, the Alabama health department said it was reviewing the information provided by the Justice Department and could not comment while the inquiry was ongoing, adding: “ADPH is committed to cooperating with the investigating agencies to have this matter resolved as quickly as possible.”

Asked to comment, the Lowndes County health department directed Reuters to the state health department.

According to Clarke, Lowndes County, situated between Selma and Montgomery, is a predominantly Black and low-income area with an average median income of just $30,000.

(This story was refiled to make paragraph 3 read ‘Title VI’ not ‘Title IV’.)

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru; editing by Mark Heinrich)