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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks to Announce Agreement in Civil Rights and Environmental Justice Investigation of Alabama Department of Public Health


Hayneville, AL
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good afternoon. I am Kristen Clarke, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. I am honored to be here today with Melanie Fontes Rainer, Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Ross for the Middle District of Alabama.

We are here this morning to announce that the United States has secured an interim resolution agreement in our environmental justice investigation of the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) in Lowndes County, Alabama. The Department of Public Health has agreed to take a number of significant steps to address the sanitation crisis that has plagued the predominantly Black, low-income communities of Lowndes County for generations. The agreement puts ADPH on a path towards ensuring the development of racially equitable and safe wastewater disposal and management systems in Lowndes County.

This agreement marks the first time that the Justice Department has secured a resolution agreement in an environmental justice investigation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And while this may be the first, it certainly won’t be our last.

Here in Lowndes County, residents who are unserved by municipal sewage systems must bear the cost and burden of installing and maintaining state-permitted, private onsite wastewater systems, as required by the state. These systems, which include conventional septic systems, are often incompatible with the impermeable Black Belt soil prevalent across Lowndes County and are expected to — and often do — fail.

Without affordable and effective wastewater removal systems, residents have resorted to straight-piping, which is a method of guiding fecal matter, bathwater and other human wastewater away from a home by using a series of ditches or crudely constructed piping systems. The straight-piped wastewater festers in trenches and pools formed in residents’ yards, woods and open areas. Without functioning septic systems, the heavier rainfall and flooding from climate change saturates the impermeable soil and the waste matter simply has nowhere to go. It remains on the ground’s surface or backs up inside homes, exposing families to serious health risks. In Lowndes County, as many as 80% of homes not connected to municipal sewer systems either lack state-required septic systems or have failing systems not approved by the state’s Health Department.

Moreover, under Alabama state law it is a crime to violate certain sanitation-related laws. What this means is not only have communities been forced to pay the price to their dignity and safety from living in these conditions, they have also had to face the double penalty of being criminalized for these injustices as well.

This is not a new problem. For generations, Black rural residents of Lowndes County have lacked access to basic sanitation services. And as a result, these residents have been exposed to raw sewage in their neighborhoods, their yards, their playgrounds, schools and even inside their own homes. They have had to deal with sickness, disease and the public health risks that result from their reliance on straight-piping. In fact,  during our investigation, we heard from many Lowndes County residents who recounted that they could not recall a time when things were any different. Enough is enough.

The Justice Department, in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services, opened this important investigation into whether the Alabama and Lowndes County Health Departments operate their onsite wastewater disposal and infectious disease and outbreaks programs in a manner that discriminates against Black residents of Lowndes County. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, these civil rights laws prohibit discrimination because of race, color and national origin in federally funded programs such as public health programs and activities. Over the course of our nearly 18-month investigation, we uncovered evidence that raised significant concerns about ADPH’s compliance with Title VI and Section 1557. Specifically, we found evidence that suggested ADPH has engaged in a consistent pattern of inaction and/or neglect concerning the health risks associated with exposure to raw sewage, and that ADPH’s implementation of its infectious diseases and outbreaks policies and procedures in Lowndes County may have deviated from standard protocols employed elsewhere in Alabama. We also uncovered concerns about ADPH’s role in the enforcement of laws that criminalize, and threatens liens, against residents who cannot afford functioning septic systems. We also found that ADPH has not collected  data to sufficiently monitor, track and abate public health nuisances caused by improper wastewater management in Lowndes County. And we found that, ADPH was aware  of the issues and the disproportionate burden and impact placed on Black residents in Lowndes County, but failed to take meaningful actions to remedy these conditions.

The agreement we are announcing today marks a new day for Black people in Lowndes County. It represents a major step toward resolving these problems — a step that is long overdue. The agreement requires ADPH to stop imposing fines, fees, penalties and threatening liens on residents of Lowndes County who cannot afford functioning septic systems; to increase data collection about onsite wastewater management systems in Lowndes County; to better examine the public health risks within Lowndes County; to develop public education and awareness campaigns to make sure that residents and health care providers are aware of these risks; and to develop a long-term public health and infrastructure improvement plan to improve access to adequate sanitation systems. At every stage, ADPH must engage with residents, local officials and experts to ensure their feedback and input is included in these reforms. My colleague and partner, Director Fontes Rainer, will describe the resolution agreement in more detail in a moment.

The fight for environmental justice is an urgent one. The climate crisis has exacerbated the health and safety risks faced by marginalized communities. The fight for environmental justice is also a fight for racial justice. The research overwhelmingly demonstrates that race is the primary indicator of exposure to environmental harms. For example, Black Americans are 75% more likely than others to live near facilities that produce hazardous waste. And Black children are nearly three times more likely than White children to have elevated blood-lead levels. The sad reality is that too many communities of color are struggling for clean water, clean air and bear the consequences of pollution and underinvestment in wastewater infrastructure, transportation, and healthcare.

One year ago, on May 5, 2022, the Justice Department rolled out a Comprehensive Environmental Justice Enforcement Strategy, where we vowed to use all of our enforcement tools and authorities to promote and advance environmental justice. This agreement reflects that ongoing commitment.

I want to acknowledge the Alabama Department of Public Health. Since the day we announced our investigation, ADPH has been cooperative, and has provided us with the information and access we needed during our investigation. We look forward to continued work with ADPH as they now implement the terms of our agreement.

In closing, I want to take a moment to speak directly to the impacted residents of Lowndes County. I want to acknowledge your bravery and resiliency, and the courage you’ve shown in speaking about this problem and making sure your voices were heard. I want to acknowledge the pain that has come from being exposed to health risks and unnecessary criminalization. I know that there is more work to be done to advance environmental justice and racial justice. I know that lasting, sustainable solutions will take time and commitment. But I want to assure you that the Department of Justice and our partners at the Department of Health and Human Services will be with you ever step of the way. Starting today, we are reaching out to residents and community leaders to discuss this agreement in greater detail and answer any questions and address any concerns.

I will now turn it over to HHS Office for Civil Rights Director Fontes Rainer who will discuss the agreement in further detail.

Environmental Justice
Civil Rights
Updated July 20, 2023