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In rural Alabama, raw sewage spurs investigation into racial inequality

In Lowndes County, the Justice Department is investigating whether local and state officials are operating in a manner that discriminates against Black residents.

HAYNEVILLE, Ala. — The raw sewage pooling all over Jerry Dean Smith’s neighborhood and flowing into the yards where children play and adults scrape out a living is a daily reminder of the poverty and lack of infrastructure enveloping residents here. 

The dark green lagoon across from Smith’s home — which is part of the county’s wastewater treatment system — emits the foul odor of human waste. In this town and many others across Lowndes County, Alabama, residents pay for sewage to flow into the lagoons because they lack the more advanced centralized treatment facilities that are common in larger cities. 

But for some taxpayers, even the slight reprieve of pumping the raw sewage down the street isn’t an option, thanks to a failing or nonexistent sewage system. 

Dark green waters across from a home holds a foul smelling mix of human waste in Lowndes County, Alabama.
Dark green waters across from a home holds a foul smelling mix of human waste in Lowndes County, Alabama. NBC News

In neighborhoods like Smith’s, the plumbing systems in some of the houses are tied into the county system but aren’t working properly, or the connections have failed entirely. Instead, many rely on pumping their sewage into holes in their yards. 

“It really smells. It smells so bad,” Smith said as she sat on the front steps of her home. “You got waste running in people’s yards, neighbors’ yards, running into places. It backs up into the majority of these neighbors’ homes. It backs up into their bathroom and on their floors. And the waste, I mean pure waste, comes through.”

Smith and her neighbors can hardly stand to be in their own yards. They forbid children to play outside, and they move around quickly to avoid the stench encircling most places.

Yamiche Alcindor interviews Jerry Dean Smith, left, outside her home.
Yamiche Alcindor interviews Jerry Dean Smith, left, outside her home.NBC News

“It’s not necessary for this to be going on in 2022,” said Smith, 59. “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.”

She and others believe it’s racism, blaming the state and local governments for not installing a centralized sewage system. In Lowndes County, which is majority Black, the poverty rate is 22 percent, which is about double the national average. At least 40 percent of homes have inadequate or no sewage systems. As a result, many residents use PVC pipes to carry waste from homes into open holes in the ground, a method known as “straight piping.”

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.

It is part of a growing push by the Justice Department to treat the failure of local governments to deliver adequate services — particularly when it comes to environmental issues — as a possible civil rights violation that should be investigated and litigated. 

Smith and her neighbors say the conditions they are forced to live with are also a health risk. A study by a team at the Baylor College of Medicine and the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise found that 1 of every 3 adults here has tested positive for hookworms, an intestinal parasite long thought to have been eradicated, which are mainly acquired by walking barefoot on soil contaminated with infected feces, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

To address cases like the one facing Smith and her neighbors, the Biden administration has requested $1.4 million from Congress to open an environmental justice office within the Justice Department. 

“I think we have to tackle the crime crisis in America while we tackle the environmental justice system,” Shalanda Young, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told lawmakers recently. “Where there are illegal activities, DOJ absolutely needs the tools to make sure all Americans are treated equally under the law even when there are environmental issues.”

‘We’re being screwed’

Catherine Coleman Flowers, an environmental activist and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient who grew up in Lowndes County, has been working on the waste problem in the county for years.

“I call it America’s dirty secret,” she said. “Because it largely exists in rural communities and poor communities, and most people, when they find out about it, they’re shocked. They don’t believe that it’s a reality in this country.”

Flowers, who is also on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, took Justice Department officials around the county to see the problems firsthand. She believes they are the results of systemic racism.

Environmental activist Catherine Coleman Flowers.
Environmental activist Catherine Coleman Flowers.NBC News

“I think it is happening because the county is majority Black,” she said. “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 added that she is also concerned that government officials have the power to levy penalties and even place liens on homes that don’t have proper septic systems, even if people can’t afford them. 

The Justice Department held its first public meetings in the county this month. Fed-up residents sounded off.

“I call my home the house of hell,” said Charlie Mae Holcombe, who lives near Smith. “I don’t know what to expect or when to expect it.”

Smith had a blunt message for Justice Department officials: “I hope that y’all coming to work it for real. And not play us for stupid or crazy.” 

Ozelle Hubert, the head of the Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce, offered a different take. 

“Whether it's discrimination, direct or indirect, the net result is we need a waste management system,” he said. “We need a treatment center in this town to address the issues, and it is a health care problem.”

‘The outhouse is better’

The situation feels like stepping back 100 years, said Robert D. Bullard, a native of Alabama, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and a man some call the “father of environmental justice.” 

“Lowndes County is a textbook case of systemic racism,” he said. “Race has been the most significant determinant of who gets infrastructure and who gets left behind. It’s like racism has kept this county underdeveloped. And it’s kept them underdeveloped, which has spillover effects in terms of life expectancy.”

He said it is long past due for law enforcement to investigate environmental issues more thoroughly.

“This is a law enforcement issue because the Justice Department deals with civil rights violations,” Bullard said. “Here is a classic case of discrimination staring you straight in the face. This kind of raw discrimination should not occur.” 

County officials responsible for part of the sewer system couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sherry Bradley, the director of the Bureau of Environmental Services of the state Public Health Department, showed up at a Justice Department hearing to defend the agency. She is adamant that the Justice Department won’t find any wrongdoing. She argues that when it comes to installing sewer lines from a home to the county’s system, it’s on the homeowner. 

Yamiche Alcindor, left, interviews Sherry Bradley, the director of the Bureau of Environmental Services of the state Public Health Department.
Yamiche Alcindor, left, interviews Sherry Bradley, the director of the Bureau of Environmental Services of the state Public Health Department.NBC News

“They’ll come out with the same conclusion I had. I’ve done my own investigation. I see no discrimination,” said Bradley, who is Black. “If you flush your toilet, you’re responsible. First of all, your home is your property. It’s private property. A lot of people think the health department is going to — can go on private property. That’s not so.”

Bradley has started a nonprofit pilot program to put septic tanks on some properties. But she said the organization doesn’t have resources to help everyone.

She also suggested that some residents use outhouses until they can get help. “You’ve got an outhouse on the outside, and you got sewage on the ground,” she said. “Environmentally, the outhouse is better.”

John Jackson, who was mayor of a town in Lowndes County for 30 years, is appalled at Bradley’s outhouse idea. “She’s just not being tolerant, not being sympathetic and concerned about the community,” he said.

Jackson and his family were active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s — when the area was dubbed “Bloody Lowndes.” He said the battle to get proper waste systems is much like the fight for voting rights. 

“That’s why we have to keep pushing,” he said, “not only to get easy access to the poll and the right to vote, but to get better sewage and better water for the entire community.”

Aquillia Grant, 50, sees it the same way. She has been “straight piping” for years, and three times a day she has to empty out the ditch near her home that fills with toilet paper and waste. She said she can’t afford a septic tank.

“It’s embarrassing,” Grant said. “If we’re important enough to vote, I think we should be important enough to get help.”

Residents like Catherine Cannion, 78, are just trying to survive in squalid conditions with failing septic systems.

Catherine Cannion.
Catherine Cannion.NBC News

“If I go in there, if it rains, and take a shower or flush my stool, the waste coming back up and sometime in my kitchen sink,” she said. “So I don’t use dishes. I use paper plates. It got me disgusted. I’m eating my own waste.”

The sewage pooling below her trailer is rotting her floorboards. Recently, she said, she broke her arm falling through the floor. But, she said, she can’t afford any repairs or to move, and she feels “trapped.”

“Nowhere to go,” Cannion said. “But we just have to pray and have faith and hope tomorrow get better.”