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Landmark environmental justice case aims to fix an Alabama county's sewage problems

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A landmark environmental justice agreement is aimed at fixing long-standing sanitation issues in a rural, predominantly Black Alabama county. Residents say help has been slow to come, but they hope new federal pressure will change the dynamic. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: As Ruby Rudolph walks around to the back of her brick ranch house in White Hall, Ala., there's a noticeable stench.

RUBY RUDOLPH: You smell that? Did you smell that? That came from over there. There's mines right there. I don't even come back here no more.

ELLIOTT: Her septic system is failing, so when it rains, raw sewage backs up into her bathroom.

RUDOLPH: And the bathtub is there, and the first place it show up.

ELLIOTT: Here on Gardenia Street, most of the neighbors have on-site septic tanks for sewage disposal. They're common in the countryside where there might not be enough customers for a municipal sewage treatment plant to be feasible. But the septic tanks here are failing. Some are old, and others are sinking or have completely collapsed. Rudolph says she's tried getting the tank pumped out and the pipes repaired, but sewage still backs up.

RUDOLPH: And can you imagine going in your bathroom to take a bath, and your water is not going out of your sink or out of your bathtub, and it's backed up with waste out of a body? And it's terrible.

ELLIOTT: Lowndes County is in the heart of what's known as the Black Belt, a rural agricultural region in west Alabama named for its rich black soil and known for its largely Black population. It was called Bloody Lowndes because of racial violence during Jim Crow and was at the center of the 1960s voting rights movement. Marchers between Selma and Montgomery would camp overnight in tent cities here. Now Lowndes County is at the forefront of an environmental justice case that could establish sanitation access as a civil right. Ruby Rudolph, who's 75, says it's about time.

RUDOLPH: Sanitation should be a right, no matter what.

ELLIOTT: The U.S. Justice Department intervened after several groups filed a complaint under the Civil Rights Act alleging racial discrimination in the way the state funds wastewater infrastructure. The Environmental Protection Agency has also opened a civil rights probe. Lowndes County native and community organizer Stephanie Wallace says, in Alabama, poor Black people are the last to get help.

STEPHANIE WALLACE: If you go around to these different predominantly Black communities, you see the same problems - raw sewage on the ground, no access to funding to fix the problem.

ELLIOTT: She's come to Gladys Maull’s home in the unincorporated Hicks Hill Community. Maull says the land has been in her family for generations.

GLADYS MAULL: I've been in this trailer 30 years. My great-grandmother house was actually built here.

ELLIOTT: That house originally had a septic system, but it's crumbling and doesn't work. So Maull is doing what's known as straight piping. A long white PVC tube runs along the ground from her trailer, emptying waste into a pasture out back.

MAULL: If I use the bathroom, it's going to come up right there. But that's the way it goes out right there.

ELLIOTT: Maull says she can't afford a new system, which would cost around $10,000. Looking up and down her road, she counts seven neighbors in the same plight.

MAULL: Before, it was like a hush-hush thing because nobody talked about it 'cause everybody was scared of being fined and going to jail for it 'cause the law is you have to have a septic system.

ELLIOTT: But now an interim agreement between the Justice Department and the Alabama Department of Public Health prevents the state from punishing people who are not in compliance.

KAREN LANDERS: We are taking action to find out what the problem is, where the problems are, and how we can connect people with resources to repair their systems.

ELLIOTT: Dr. Karen Landers is the Chief Medical Officer with the Alabama Department of Public Health. She says having the Federal Government involved opens up resources under the American Rescue Plan Act. But she rejects any implication that the state was discriminating against poor Black residents.

LANDERS: There was no finding against the Alabama Department of Public Health as doing anything wrong or taking any action against people that was discriminatory in any way. This was a voluntary agreement between the department and the DOJ.

ELLIOTT: Landers says the state is currently developing a survey to reach Lowndes' County's roughly 10,000 residents. Environmental activists are hopeful the agreement can serve as a national model for sanitation equity.

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: I think Lowndes County was just the canary in the coal mine.

ELLIOTT: Catherine Coleman Flowers is the founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, one of the groups that filed the civil rights complaint against Alabama. She grew up in Lowndes County and has been pushing for better infrastructure for decades. Flowers wrote the book "Waste: One Woman's Fight Against America's Dirty Little Secret."

FLOWERS: It's more than systemic racism. I think that it is - actually, systemic discrimination against rural communities is underlining it. I think that rural communities across the U.S. are suffering from the same problem. People just didn't talk about it.

ELLIOTT: Flowers says climate change is bringing it to the forefront, with rising water tables and intense storms that push more water through sewage systems. She advocates for a national policy that would put more pressure on manufacturers to offer warranties and adapt systems that would work for specific regions.

FLOWERS: We just want to solve this because this could be a public health problem for us throughout the U.S. if we don't solve this problem. And every homeowner deserves the right to have clean water and sanitation.

ELLIOTT: For White Hall Mayor Delmartre Bethel, the lack of sewage infrastructure is an economic development issue for his small town.

DELMARTRE BETHEL: A public sewer system is attractive. If we have something for them to hook up to or be able to offer them, like I said, it would attract more people in. But right now, we don't have it.

ELLIOTT: He says it's a Catch-22. With little more than a dollar store to generate tax revenue, he doesn't have the resources to build a public sewer plant that residents could afford. Bethel, who is 30 and serving his first term as mayor, says he's been surprised and disheartened by some of the debate around solving the raw sewage problem - comments like people need to get a better job or find a different place to live. He thinks those sentiments are rooted in the past.

BETHEL: White Hall is known for playing a pivotal part in the actual voting rights movement. And so when Lowndes County want help, it's a lot of pushback because of that movement.

ELLIOTT: An attitude of you got the political power you wanted, now solve your own problems. But he's optimistic that having the Justice Department involved can help, and he's working now to urge people to be patient and trust the process. That's going to be a big lift, says White Hall resident Ruby Rudolph.

RUDOLPH: Our Black people are just so used to not getting things through the state or the state helping them. So they just - a lot of them just don't bother.

ELLIOTT: State health officials acknowledge the generational trust issues and say they're working with local pastors and other community leaders to foster a better relationship.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Lowndes County, Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B ET AL. SONG, "CONCRETE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.