News & Insights

Epa Investigates Alabama’s Management Of Sewer Infrastructure Funds

On October 3, 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) announced it was accepting for investigation an Administrative Complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Natural Resources Council against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (“ADEM”). The Complaint alleges that ADEM engages in racially discriminatory practices against residents in the Black Belt region of the state through its implementation of the Alabama Clean Water State Revolving Fund (“SRF”).

According to ADEM, the SRF is a low interest loan program intended to finance public infrastructure improvements in Alabama, including publicly owned wastewater treatment works, as well as sewer rehabilitation and decentralized wastewater treatment. The SRF is funded with a blend of state and federal funds. ADEM administers the SRF, performs required technical and environmental review of projects, and disburses funds to recipients. Only public bodies, including counties, state agencies, incorporated cities and towns, boards, and authorities, may apply for SRF financing.

The Complaint that the EPA accepted for investigation claims that ADEM makes it “impossible for people who need help with onsite sanitation to access” the SRF funds. The Complaint claims that ADEM blocks access to the SRF by not considering financial need, conducting inadequate outreach to disadvantaged communities, and giving few points in its scoring system to people who use at-home sewer systems rather than public systems. The EPA has stated it will investigate “[w]hether ADEM’s implementation of the [SRF] program . . . excludes from participation, denies benefits to, or subjects to discrimination, residents in the Black Belt region of Alabama, on the basis of race[.]”

Many households in the Black Belt region lack access to a centralized public wastewater treatment system and rely on either septic systems or “straight pipes,” which discharge untreated sewage directly into external trenches and pits. The United Nations investigated sewage issues in the Black Belt in 2017 and issued a report describing inadequate or nonexistent sewage treatment as well as resulting health issues.

ADEM disagrees with the Complaint’s allegations, claiming that it has “made addressing the wastewater and drinking water needs of disadvantaged communities a priority” in awarding federal funding. According to ADEM, 34 percent of SRF funding in 2022 went to communities in the Black Belt region. ADEM states it welcomes “the opportunity to provide information to EPA to counter the allegations[.]”