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This morning, the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise filed a civil rights complaint against the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and the Lowndes County Health Department for violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Filed by Earthjustice, the complaint alleges that the agencies have failed to address the onsite sewage problems in Lowndes County, Alabama or investigate hookworm, which disproportionately impact black communities.

For decades, residents of rural Lowndes County, an area nestled between Selma and Montgomery, have dealt with failing onsite septic systems and striaght-piping sewage directly from homes because of a lack of adequate, affordable wastewater technology. A 2017 study showed that one third of 55 people in Lowndes County tested positive for hookworm, a parasite spread through fecal matter in soil. 

"We know that lack of access to functional septic systems has an outsized impact on African American residents," said Anna Sewell, water project attorney for Earthjustice. "So we just hope that the Department of Health and Human Services will use civil rights law to investigate and resolve this discriminatory conduct that has deprived them from adequate health protection and functional wastewater systems." 

The letter says the public health department, even though it has known about the problem for years, "has failed to protect residents from this urgent threat to the environment and human health, and has even affirmatively and incorrectly informed residents there is no evidence of hookworm in Lowndes County."

It also says the agencies aren’t keeping data they need to keep to comply with the Civil Rights Act, and that the past practice of arresting individuals for not having a proper septic system is discriminatory. According to state records, from 1996 to 2018 there were 24 instances of septic system violations; seven people have pleaded guilty. Sherry Bradley, director of the Bureau of Environmental Services at the state health department, told me last week that the agency has no interest in citing, fining, or reporting people who can't afford a septic system.

The Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise is requesting that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services investigate these allegations and ensure that the agencies comply with the law. 
Southerly hosted an event on rural sewage infrastructure and public health in Lowndes County, Alabama From left to right: Southerly founder Lyndsey Gilpin; Melissa Brown, Montgomery Advertiser Reporter; Mark Barnett, Engineer and Auburn professor; Mary McIntyre, Chief Medical Officer of ADPH; Catherine Flowers, EJI. Credit: Eric Dixon
On Saturday, Sept. 22, Southerly hosted an event in Lowndes County about this exact issue, which we covered in a recent four-part series with Montgomery Advertiser and Scalawag. The event was a discussion with four panelists: Melissa Brown, a reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser; Mark Barnett, an engineer and Auburn environmental engineering professor; Mary McIntyre, Chief Medical Officer of ADPH; and Catherine Flowers, rural development manager for the Equal Justice Initiative. 

About 50 people showed up, and it was a racially and economically diverse crowd with students, activists, progressive organizers, community leaders, and quite a few local residents. Many of them have been trying to address this issue for years and discussed the partnerships, collaborations, grant funding, and educational programs they're working on to reduce public health risks and bring in better wastewater systems.

"Wherever I go across the world, people are looking to what’s happening here in Lowndes County," said Flowers, who is working with engineers and universities on technological solutions

There were some tense moments over the two-hour discussion, but overall people were on the same page about the urgency of the problems, which are being exacerbated by climate change effects like erratic precipitation patterns and flooding

“No one should have to deal with the shame of the situation you find yourself in," McIntyre told the crowd. She described the steps ADPH has been taking to secure infrastructure funding to pay for new septic systems and community assessments the agency is doing to understand the extent of hookworm and other diseases related to poverty

I moderated the panel discussion and was floored by the amount of passion from everyone involved. It was a feat to get all of these stakeholders in the same place to talk about an issue that is incredibly complex, sensitive, and overwhelming. The fixes are expensive, the systemic injustice embedded. It's a challenge to figure out where to place the blame on something that stems from poverty, and the situation in Lowndes County is a prime example of socioeconomic and racial inequality that can be found in every corner of this country. Hopefully, this complaint will help shed more light on the crisis and pressure those in power to address it — something locals have desperately been trying to do on their own for years. 
The rural South's invisible public health crisis 

Read our series! Here are the firstsecond, and third, and fourth stories about how communities are addressing the rise of poverty-related tropical diseases related to poor sewage infrastructure in the rural South. Or,
 see it all in one place on this landing page by Montgomery Advertiser

Stories worth your time 

State by state, Bloomberg Environment examines regulations on chemicals like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). Most states in the Southeast don't have state standards, but some, like Alabama, say they are working to develop some. People who live in Lawrence County, Alabama are suing water companies and regulators, claiming they're getting sick from the water that is contaminated by chemicals used in manufacturing products like Teflon and Scotchgard. 

CityLab mapped out sites in North and South Carolina where black communities are threatened by environmental disasters, from coal ash ponds to rising seas to extreme weather. 

North Carolina and South Carolina are just now starting to assess the damage from Hurricane Florence. Duke Energy claims coal ash spilling from its North Carolina power plant is not polluting waterways, though as Energy News Network reports, environmental advocates say otherwise and are testing the water. This NASA satellite image shows the dark, polluted rivers spilling into the ocean. 

Bitter Southerner talks about tomatoes so much, they had me craving tomato and mayo sandwiches all summer long. This week, the magazine has a story with striking photos on the hard-working humans who grow and pick tomatoes on farms across the region. 

In case you missed it: Southerly was featured in The New York Times last week! Here's a snippet: "Southerly’s mission statement sets out some uncompromising goals: 'This region stands to bear the brunt and lose the most from the effects of climate change. It is experiencing massive economic shifts from a changing energy industry. The South is the fastest urbanizing area of the United States, but it is also the most economically distressed. Southerners deserve a publication that covers the nuances of their environment, history and communities without being condescending or stereotypical, without parachuting in from large metropolitan areas. The rest of the world deserves to know about the creative ways communities here are adapting to these changes, and the challenges that come with that.' You could almost call it a mission statement for celebrating — and transforming — the South itself."

News flying under the radar 

The Martin County water district saga continues: the reservoir reached extremely low levels this month, prompting the district to declare a state of emergency. The county, already in massive debt, spent $100,000 trying to fix an intake pump, before renting a pump for $18,000 a month that isn't producing enough water for the county.  

A court halted construction on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on national forest land in West Virginia and Virginia. 

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper ordered $4 million  to be spent on mosquito control in several counties under a major disaster declaration after the hurricane. 
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