In Alabama’s Black Belt, many residents have to hold their breath every time they attempt to flush their toilets because there’s a great chance that sewage will be sent back through their toilet bowls, bathtubs, and sinks.

A group of environmental justice organizations filed a civil rights complaint last week against the state of Alabama, contending that this public health and environmental justice issue is deliberately maintained by public policy. The complaint, filed by the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and the Natural Resources Defense Council, alleges that the state has discriminated against Black communities in how it distributes money for wastewater treatment systems.

The environmental groups say that by not adequately addressing the issue, which has festered for decades, the state has worked to leave behind poor households while threatening people’s health and the environment, and undermining human dignity.

An estimated 80% of Black Belt residents are not attached to a municipal sewage line, meaning they’re legally mandated to invest in individual private waste management systems. But most private systems regularly fail, and many residents can’t afford to operate them on their own. Many homes in the region still utilize outdated “straight pipe” systems, where sewage is pumped untreated from house to yard.

“This country’s neglect of wastewater infrastructure in majority Black communities — both urban and rural — is resulting in a hygienic hell for far too many people. A hell that climate change is only making worse,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.

The issue is widespread: Across the country, wastewater systems are functioning at 81% of their capacity, on average, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Communities of color are most likely to be impacted, with the problem only worsening by increasingly frequent severe weather events and flooding events that overpower the broken systems.

The vestiges of slavery and a convergence of poverty and climate change have created a particularly damaging situation in Alabama’s Black Belt, which is more than 50% Black — four times the national average. In one Black Belt county, a 2017 study found that 73% of residents reported exposure to raw sewage inside their homes, with one-third of residents testing positive for hookworm, a disease once thought to be eradicated in the U.S.

Named for its high concentration of Black residents — a product of slavery — but also because of its fertile black soil, which helped drive American slavery, the Black Belt is one of the poorest regions in the country. Today, the clay-laden soil is more known for how it eats through sewage septic tanks, leaving residents with the financial means to have a waste treatment system to use the “mound” waste filtration system, which uses piled-up dirt to filter sewage. But heavy rains made more common by climate change frequently destroy those mounds, too.

“The link between race, poverty, and sanitation inequity in the Black Belt is a product of centuries of racism and discrimination that can be traced directly to slavery, sharecropping, and enforced racial segregation,” the complaint states.

And many residents don’t have the financial means to go through the process of funding a private treatment system. Nine out of Alabama’s 10 poorest counties are found there. Nearly one-third of residents live in poverty, making a private waste treatment system’s $5,000 to $22,000 average price tag unattainable. As such, anywhere between 15% and 20% of residents in the region don’t have any sewage system, according to the complaint.

Coleman Flowers says her home county of Lowndes, where the Alabama Department of Public Health estimates 40% to 90% of households don’t have an adequate sewage treatment system, has been fighting for nearly 60 years for “dignity, environmental justice, and the basic human right of sanitation access.”

The civil rights complaint argues that Alabama’s policies for distributing federal funding from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides communities with low-cost infrastructure financing, do not benefit the communities that need it most.

According to a statement released to the Associated Press, Alabama refutes the claim. “In 2022, 34% ($157 million) of the $463 million of drinking water and wastewater funding awarded by ADEM [the Alabama Department of Environmental Management] went to Black Belt counties, the statement read. “Disadvantaged Black Belt areas received funding at three times the rate of other areas.”

But a history of misappropriation and a lack of results puts the state’s response into question. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice, in its first-ever environmental justice investigation, opened a probe into the state’s Department of Public Health after it received millions of dollars in federal funding to improve waste treatment systems with little to show for it. The results of the investigation have not yet been made public.

A Natural Resources Defense Council study found that between 2011 and 2020, payouts from the federal clean water revolving fund were more likely to be shelled out to white communities than communities of color. Similarly, a Worldacad analysis last year found that when states had similar population sizes, the states with a greater white population received more money from the fund.

Under the Biden administration, similar environmental justice complaints, such as one in Chicago in 2021, have been successful, signaling a shift in the federal government’s treatment of environmental injustices. However, the timeline for a response from the Environmental Protection Agency varies, sometimes taking years.

Adam Mahoney is the climate and environment reporter at Worldacad. Twitter @AdamLMahoney