75-year old Ruby Rudolph and most of her neighbors on Gardenia Street have on-site septic tanks for sewage disposal. They’re common in rural regions where there might not be enough customers for a municipal sewage treatment plant to be affordable.
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 nothing has worked. Sewage still backs up.
The alternative when the septic tank does not work and you don’t have the money to install a new one is to run a sewage pipe out over the lawn and into the woods
“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 our body? It’s terrible,” she says.
This is Lowndes County, 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 which also has a largely Black population.
It was called “Bloody Lowndes” because of racial violence during Jim Crow, and the county was the center of the voting rights movement in the 1960s. Marchers between Selma and Montgomery would camp overnight in tent cities here.
Now Lowndes County is at the forefront of a landmark federal environmental justice case that could establish sanitation access as a civil right.
Rudolph, who’s 75, says it’s about time.
“Sanitation should be a right no matter what,” she says. “Sanitation should be the first thing.”
The U.S. Justice Department has intervened after several groups filed a complaint under the Civil Rights Act alleging racial discrimination in the way Alabama wastewater infrastructure, favoring centralized sewer systems over on-site sanitation. 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 often the last to get help.
“If you go around to these different predominantly Black communities, you see the same problems,” says Wallace. “Raw sewage on the ground; no access to funding to fix the problem.”
Nearly 10,000 people live in Lowndes County, which is 73% Black according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 28% of residents live in poverty.
Wallace, who is 46, says water and sewage infrastructure issues have been around as long as she can remember.
“We would go up the street to play with the neighborhood kids. And their mom had this nice brick house, but a certain part of the yard we couldn’t play it because there was raw sewage on the ground.”
She says it should not still be happening in 2023.
“You’re waiting on the residents to fix a problem that the state is aware is here,” Wallace says. “They have funding to help, but you’ve done nothing.”
Dr. Karen Landers, Chief Medical Officer of the Alabama Department of Public Health says the problem is complicated by both poverty, and the soil in the Black Belt region, which she says is not generally conducive to septic systems.
She says getting everyone access to adequate sanitation will require a range of solutions, and a lot of money. For now, the state has $2.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to help low-income homeowners.
Dr. Landers says the first step for the health department is to develop a survey to get a handle on how widespread the issues are.
“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,” Landers says.