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Some Alabama residents say state isn’t fixing wastewater lines, advocacy groups allege racial bias

The failing septic tank buried behind Mautree Burke’s home causes sewage to rise to the surface of her backyard. — USDA

(NEW YORK) — After years of dealing with unsanitary wastewater conditions in and outside of their homes, some residents in the predominately African American Black Belt region of Alabama allege the state agency tasked with distributing funds to fix faulty septic systems has been slow to repair tanks and sewage lines.


Some residents have reported wastewater rising from the ground into their yards and entering their homes through pipes. This has been an ongoing problem for decades in the area, according to the Center of Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ). Now, residents and multiple organizations are taking action to try and clean up their community.

CREEJ joined the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Poverty Law Center to file a complaint against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) on Monday alleging the state agency is withholding funds, particularly from Black communities, that can be used to install and maintain water sanitation systems for those who need it the most.

“This complaint is incorrect and misleading,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s office told ABC News through a statement. “I suggest checking out the facts: https://alabamawaterprojects.com/“.

The director of the ADEM, Lance LeFleur, denies any racial bias in the allocation of funds.
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“I will tell people day in, day out, we do not, in any way, have any discrimination in this department,” LeFleur told ABC News. “The results are what matters. That’s what counts.”

The results that LeFleur is referring to are the $157 million he said the ADEM has committed to the Black Belt region, which is an area where a majority of the residents are African American and has some of the highest poverty rates in the country, according to experts from the University of Alabama. That’s 34% of the total funds the ADEM currently has 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, partly through President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill but the state would need about $3 billion to fix all of their infrastructure issues, according to LeFleur.

But LeFleur said the money they’ve allocated so far hasn’t been implemented yet and plans on where to use it are still in development. LeFleur estimates about half of the homes in the Black Belt use their own septic systems, as opposed to a centralized system.

Currently, at least 30,000 homes have failing systems in the region and the 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 campsite for civil rights marches in the 60s, said she hasn’t seen any of that aid and is struggling to keep raw sewage from spewing over that same land.

She said wastewater is coming from a failing septic tank buried in her backyard and this is a problem many residents in her town are dealing with. Some residents don’t have a septic tank, but only pipes that carry wastewater from their houses directly into their yards, according to Burke.

“Sometimes, it’ll get clogged,” Burke said when describing an issue with a neighbor’s home, which she said has pipes. “And they’ll sometimes try to go 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 region in a home with her husband, three children and mother.

The region, which spans across several states in the South, was named for its black, fertile soil. The dense earth renders many existing wastewater systems ineffective, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Burke said her family can’t afford to pay the $10,000 – $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 working septic tank would improve her and her family’s lives. “We wouldn’t have to worry about the system backing up or sewage coming into the house. The kids, they don’t go into the backyard, but they would be able to play more outside.”

The founder of CREEJ, Catherine Coleman Flowers, said she grew up in the Black Belt and had to deal with failing septic tanks in her home growing up.

“I mean, we live in the United States of America, for God’s sake,” Flowers told ABC News. “Nobody in this country should have sewage running back into their homes, or not be able to have it adequately treated, so that they can live in a healthy and safe environment.”

Flowers alleges the ADEM has the funds to alleviate Alabama’s septic system problem through Alabama’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, but it is withholding the funds from the majority African American Black Belt region of Alabama. A claim, which the agency denies.

“I know there is people around here who care,” Burke said. “But I would say put their selves in our shoes that’s dealing with this situation. They’re taking like baby steps. They’re not in like a big hurry to do anything.”

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