After years of dealing with unsanitary sewage conditions inside and outside their homes, some residents in the predominantly African-American area of Alabama’s Black Belt claim the state agency tasked with distributing funds to repair faulty septic systems is slow to repair tanks and sewer lines.
Some residents reported sewage rising from the ground in their yards and entering their homes through pipes. This has been an ongoing problem for decades in the region, according to the Center for Agricultural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ). Now, residents and many organizations are taking action to try to clean up their community.
CREEJ joined the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Poverty Law Center in filing a complaint against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) on Monday, alleging that the state agency is withholding funds, particularly from black communities, that could be used to installation and maintenance of water drainage systems for those who need it most.
“This complaint is false and misleading,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s office said in a statement to ABC News. “I suggest checking out the facts: https://alabamawaterprojects.com/”.
ADEM director Lance LeFleur denies any racial bias in the allocation of funds.
“I will tell people day in and day out, we do not, in any way, have any discrimination in this department,” LeFleur told ABC News. “Results are what matter. That’s what counts.”
The results LeFleur is referring to are the $157 million he said ADEM has committed to the Black Belt area, which is an area where the majority of residents are African-American and has some of the highest poverty rates in the country, according to specialists from the University of Alabama. That’s 34 percent of the total funds currently available to ADEM for wastewater management for the entire state, he said. According to LeFleur, the Black Belt makes up 10.6% of Alabama’s total population.
According to LeFleur, Alabama is expected to receive up to $1 billion for failing infrastructure in Alabama, in part through President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, but the state would need about $3 billion to fix all the problems infrastructure, according to LeFleur.
But LeFleur said the money they’ve set aside so far hasn’t been implemented yet, and plans for where to use it are still a work in progress. LeFleur estimates that about half the homes in the Black Belt use their own septic systems, as opposed to a central system.
Currently, at least 30,000 homes have failed systems in the area, and ADEM has only been able to work with about 150 – 200 homes to install working systems in the last year, according to LeFleur.
Mautree Burke, 26, who said she lives on land in rural White Hall, Alabama, that was once used as a campground before civil rights marches in the 1960s, said she hasn’t seen any of that help. and struggles to keep raw sewage from being discharged onto the same land.
She said the sewage comes from a broken septic tank buried in her yard, and that’s a problem many residents in her town are facing. Some residents don’t have a septic tank, but only pipes that carry sewage from their homes directly to their yards, according to Burke.
“Sometimes, it will clog,” Burke said when describing a problem with a neighbor’s house, which she said has pipes. “And sometimes they’ll try to unclog it with a stick or a pole so it can try to run again. And I’ll tell you this, who wants to do that?”
Burke lives in the Black Belt area in a house with her husband, three children and her mother,
The region, which spans several Southern states, was named for its black, fertile soil. Dense land renders many existing sewage systems ineffective, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Burke said her family can’t afford to pay the $10,000 to $15,000 she estimates it would cost to fix a crack in her 30-plus-year-old septic tank.
“That would help us tremendously,” Burke said when asked how a functioning septic tank would improve her and her family’s life. “We wouldn’t have to worry about the support system or sewage coming into the house. The kids, they don’t go in the backyard, but they could play outside more.”
CREEJ founder Catherine Coleman Flowers said she grew up in the Black Belt and had to deal with septic tank failures in her home growing up.
“I mean, we live in the United States of America, for God’s sake,” Flowers told ABC News. “No one in this country should have sewage that backs up into their homes or that cannot be treated adequately so that they can live in a healthy and safe environment.”
Flowers claims that ADEM has the funds to alleviate Alabama’s septic system problem through the Alabama Clean Water State Revolving Fund, but withholds the funds from Alabama’s majority African-American Black Belt area. A claim, which the agency denies.
“I know there are people around here who care,” Burke said. “But I would say put themselves in our shoes dealing with this situation. They’re taking baby steps. They’re not in a rush to do anything.”