Civil Rights Complaint Filed Against State of Alabama for Sanitation Inequity in Black Communities
The complaint details how Alabama distributes funding for wastewater infrastructure—withholding resources from communities of color lacking proper sanitation access.
LOWNDES COUNTY, AL – The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), represented by Southern Poverty Law Center, today filed a complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and the State of Alabama for discrimination in how the state distributes funding for wastewater infrastructure, 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. 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.
“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. “As we commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, I reflect on the activists in my home county of Lowndes who fought for their voting and civil rights. Nearly 60 years later we’re still fighting for dignity, environmental justice and the basic human right of sanitation access. Corrective action resulting from this complaint will positively impact all Alabama residents who rely on onsite septic.”
The complaint notes that money from Alabama’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund could be used to help address sanitation inequity in the state; 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. These policies disproportionately harm Alabama’s Black residents and perpetuate an unconscionable situation.
ADEM blocks the use of state revolving fund money for onsite sanitation needs in six ways:
- ADEM created a point system to rank project proposals and decide which projects to fund. But ADEM's ranking system makes it impossible for people who rely on onsite sanitation to earn enough points to secure funding.
- ADEM does not consider financial need in its ranking system.
- For the past four years, ADEM has unreasonably limited the amount of loan forgiveness it offers people with financial need.
- The department has conducted inadequate outreach to disadvantaged communities regarding the availability of state revolving fund money.
- ADEM only allows public bodies to apply for state revolving fund support. This rules out individuals, homeowners’ associations, community groups and nonprofit organizations who would otherwise be eligible.
- And ADEM has failed to offer alternative financing options for those unable to issue bonds.
As a result, Alabama has distributed more than one and a half billion dollars in Clean Water State Revolving Fund money since the program’s inception in 1987, but it has never awarded any money through the state revolving fund to support onsite sanitation needs.
As the federal government implements the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure law and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), millions of dollars for infrastructure projects will be coming to Alabama.
"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 NRDC President and CEO Manish Bapna. “With millions of dollars coming to Alabama through the bipartisan infrastructure law—those funds should be going to these communities that have been left behind for too long, to finally give them the basic public health infrastructure they deserve.”
Title VI prohibits entities that receive federal funding from engaging in activities that subject individuals to discrimination based on race. ADEM and the State of Alabama receive federal financial assistance from EPA and are bound by this prohibition against discrimination. The advocacy groups are requesting that EPA’s Office of External Civil Rights Compliance accept this complaint, investigate Alabama’s chronic water infrastructure disinvestment through a civil rights lens, and ensure that ADEM and the State of Alabama eliminate the racially discriminatory effects of their current practices.
For decades, many Alabama residents have struggled to access adequate sanitation. The problem is especially severe in the Black Belt, named for its dark, fertile, clayey soils. In rural areas, many people are not served by a centralized sewer system and must rely on onsite sewage treatment. In the Black Belt, onsite systems often fail because of the region’s impermeable soil, and broken or failed onsite sanitation systems cause raw sewage to back up into homes or pool outside. This problem will worsen as climate change intensifies, leading to rising water tables and more intense rains, which will increase failure rates for onsite sanitation systems.
Black Belt counties are among the state’s poorest. The cost of an effective onsite sanitation system—up to tens of thousands of dollars—is out of reach for many. But homeowners in Alabama have the responsibility to install and maintain a state-permitted onsite sanitation system. Those who cannot afford a functioning onsite system are forced to use makeshift straight pipes that discharge raw sewage from homes to yards, woods, or other nearby outdoor areas. At the same time, state laws threaten residents who cannot afford functioning onsite systems with fines, arrests, and potential liens on their homes. Sanitation inequity in Alabama has become notorious, raising human rights concerns and garnering national and international attention.
The U.S. Census has not collected data on sanitation since 1990, and Alabama has not attempted any statewide survey or analysis. But existing information paints a picture of rampant, predictable onsite system failure and pervasive straight pipe use throughout the Black Belt.
- One study estimated that almost 90 percent of land in the Black Belt is not suited for conventional onsite sanitation.
- A survey in Wilcox County found that more than 90 percent of unsewered homes had an unpermitted sewage system, 60 percent with a visible straight pipe and 33 percent with a buried straight pipe or other unpermitted system.
- A concurrent survey in Hale County found that 65 percent of unsewered homes lacked permitted onsite systems, and six percent had visible straight pipes.
- Another study reported that 18 percent of households in one surveyed Black Belt county lack access to any wastewater treatment.
- And in Lowndes County, 15 percent of survey respondents reported that they had a failing onsite sanitation system or no wastewater treatment at all. The Alabama Department of Public Health thinks the number is much higher: it has estimated that 40 to 90 percent of all Lowndes County households have inadequate or no onsite sanitation.
NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.