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State government probed after communities experience parasitic diseases, backyard sewage issues: 'It's really disgraceful'

The state allegedly withheld federal funds meant to help residents improve their sewage systems.

The state allegedly withheld federal funds meant to help residents improve their sewage systems.

Photo Credit: iStock

The lack of wastewater infrastructure across rural Alabama has left many people with backyard sewage problems and exposure to parasitic diseases. 

Now, the Environmental Protection Agency has launched a probe into the state's alleged withholding of federal funds meant to help rural residents improve their sewage systems. 

What happened?

Alabama's Black Belt is known for its deep, fertile soil but also suffers from insufficient wastewater infrastructure, which has led to sewage collecting in trenches and backyards. Many residents of this region's predominantly Black population also live in poverty, making it difficult for individual homeowners to upgrade their sanitation systems. 

Since 1987, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has distributed more than 1.5 billion federal dollars that it received from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. The money was meant to help resolve wastewater infrastructure issues throughout the Black Belt. 

However, the state has only allowed public bodies to receive the money, which leaves out rural homeowners and community groups who could use the funds to install septic tanks.

In March, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint alleging that state regulators designed the system to deny rural residents access to financial assistance. The complaint was filed under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or natural origin on programs that receive federal assistance. 

Why is Alabama's sewage problem concerning?

Without federal funds to upgrade sanitation, people have fallen victim to hookworm, a gastrointestinal parasite that is typically associated with the developing world and was thought to have been eradicated in the United States more than a decade ago. A 2017 study found that one-third of residents in Lowndes County had contracted hookworm. Hookworm can cause anemia and stunt children's mental development.

"It's really disgraceful and painful that people endure this, especially when we have the opportunity to fix it," Aaron Colangelo, an attorney at the NRDC, told Grist.

Though alarming, this is just one recent example of polluted water affecting public health. For instance, a diesel spill in Tennessee left many residents without safe drinking water for a week in July. 

And PFAS or "forever chemicals" have inundated water supplies across the globe. Exposure to PFAS can cause health problems, including increased cholesterol levels, decreased vaccine response in children, changes in liver enzymes, and increased risk of kidney cancer.

What's being done about Alabama's sewage problem?

In 2021, the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services launched a probe into the conditions in Lowndes County. In May, the state agreed to identify homes with inadequate sanitation systems and update them. 

However, this only addresses one Black Belt county. Colangelo told Grist he hopes that the EPA's new probe will help bring justice for people living in this region's other 23 counties.

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