EPA launches civil rights investigation into Alabama over CWSRF funding

Oct. 6, 2023
The U.S. EPA will investigate the Alabama Department of Environmental Management over its Clean Water State Revolving Fund policies, which NRDC claims discriminates against underserved communities.

The U.S. EPA has opened a federal civil rights investigation to examine the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) for potential discrimination in its distribution of funding for wastewater infrastructure and withholding of resources from communities of color, according to a press release from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

This announcement comes in response to a Title VI civil rights complaint filed against ADEM by the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ) and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), represented by Southern Poverty Law Center.  

“Sanitation is a basic human right that every person in this country, and in the state of Alabama, should have equal access to. Those without proper sanitation access are exposed to illness and serious harm,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of CREEJ. “We are hopeful that the EPA’s investigation will result in positive change for any Alabama resident currently relying on a failing onsite sanitation system and for all U.S. communities for whom justice is long overdue.” 

NRDC said that many Alabama residents—especially in Black communities—lack access to a centralized sewage utility and must rely on expensive individual household onsite sanitation systems, which often fail. Those who cannot afford a functioning onsite system are forced to resort to makeshift straight pipes that discharge raw sewage outdoors. This threatens people’s health, degrades the local environment, and undermines human dignity. 

The Title VI complaint highlights that Alabama’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund could be used to help address sanitation inequity in the state — but NRDC claims that ADEM has adopted policies that make it nearly impossible for people who need help with onsite sanitation to access this money. According to the council, these policies disproportionately harm Alabama’s Black residents and perpetuate an unconscionable situation.  

“We filed this complaint in the hopes that it would help not only Alabama’s Black Belt counties, but all 67 counties across the state,” said Aaron Colangelo, Chief Litigation Counsel at NRDC. “Alabama disburses tens of millions of dollars every year through the state revolving fund, but they have never awarded a single dollar of that money to people with onsite sanitation needs. We know they can do better.” 

EPA’s investigation will delve deeper into ADEM’s infrastructure funding practices. Specifically, the agency plans to examine:

  1. whether ADEM’s administration of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, including its public engagement and outreach practices, discriminates against residents in the Black Belt region of Alabama on the basis of race; and
  2. whether ADEM has and is implementing grievance procedures that provide prompt and fair resolution of discrimination complaints.

With EPA’s acceptance of the complaint, the agency is also giving ADEM 30 days to respond in writing.

Alabama has distributed more than one and a half billion dollars in Clean Water State Revolving Fund money since the program’s inception in 1987, but it has never awarded any money through the state revolving fund to support onsite sanitation needs.

Onsite systems often fail because of impermeable soil. Broken or failed onsite sanitation systems cause raw sewage to back up into homes or pool outside. This problem will worsen as climate change intensifies, leading to rising water tables and more intense rains, which will increase failure rates for onsite sanitation systems. 

NRDC argues that ADEM unduly limits recipient eligibility to public bodies like towns or counties. Many other states don’t have this restriction, including Rhode Island, Delaware, Oregon, West Virginia, Iowa, Maryland, and Missouri. 

According to NRDC’s statement, ADEM created a point system to rank project proposals and decide which projects to fund — but the ranking system makes it impossible for people who rely on onsite sanitation to earn enough points to compete for funding. Other states provide a far greater percentage of available points for onsite sanitation needs. North Carolina and Illinois, for example, provide about five times more weight in their point systems to onsite sanitation needs than Alabama. And some states, including Arkansas and Massachusetts, bypass their point systems entirely and dedicate some State Revolving Fund money just for onsite sanitation.