Hundreds of low-income residents of Lowndes County, a rural, majority-Black county in Alabama, have lived for years with failing septic tanks, Connor Sheets reported for AL.com news in July 2021. Some residents, Sheets wrote, rely on “straight pipes that spew raw sewage into open cesspools in their yards.” A grassroots public health campaign had successfully lobbied for more than $2 million in federal funding to provide new wastewater treatment systems in the homes of low-income people across county, Sheets reported. However, as Sheets wrote in a July 27, 2021 report, many Lowndes County households’ “best hope for obtaining costly wastewater treatment systems” was dashed when federal funds were rescinded after a recent political dispute that led to one of program’s advocates, Perman Hardy, being removed from the local sewer board.
Hardy was removed in June 2021, after the chairman of the Lowndes County Commission, Charlie King, claimed that had she never been formally appointed. Hardy—who “volunteered hundreds of hours over the past decade to raise awareness about insufficient wastewater treatment in her home county and push for remedies,” according to AL.com—was also designated as the incorporator and authorized agent of the nonprofit organization, the Lowndes County Unincorporated Wastewater Program Sewer Board, designated as the recipient of the USDA funding.
Hardy was “heartbroken” by the news, AL.com reported. In a statement she said, “We’ve been fighting, and we finally got a solution for getting the sewage off the ground. And we’ve got elected officials who don’t want to see it happen.”
In November 2021, the US Department of Justice launched an investigation into Lowndes County’s longstanding sewage and wastewater problems. The Alabama News Network reported that DOJ officials aimed to make certain that state and local health officials followed federal civil rights laws requiring protection of the health of all the county’s residents. Local residents interviewed welcomed the investigation.
The Lowndes County wastewater crisis has received limited corporate news coverage. On November 9, 2021, the Washington Post ran article about it, focused on the Department of Justice Investigation. CBS’s Sixty Minutes broadcast a segment on the case in December 2021.
Connor Sheets, “2.9 Million Effort to Address Wastewater Woes in Peril in Lowndes County,” AL.com, July 2, 2021.
Connor Sheets, “Lowndes County Group Loses $2million Federal Grant to Address Sewage Problem,” AL.com, July 27, 2021.
George McDonald, “Lowndes Co. Residents Speak Out about DOJ Investigation,” Alabama News Network, November 10, 2021.
Student Researcher: Derick LaMadeleine (Saint Michael’s College)
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (Saint Michael’s College)