In Alabama’s Black Belt, a region where the vestiges of slavery still manifest in chronic poverty and crumbling infrastructure, a more recent legacy of mining and industry is haunting the land through poisoned waterways and toxic soil.
Yet the region has long been the rural core of civil-rights struggles, and along the Black Belt, local citizens are trying to revive a legacy of activism as they struggle to restore their environment.
In Uniontown—in Perry County, one of the state’s poorest—residents say they have been systematically denied the basic dignity of decent sanitation—what activists see as the residue of institutionalized racism.
With fewer than 1,800 people, 90 percent of whom are black, Uniontown is saddled with a deteriorating, mismanaged wastewater treatment system, and a government that residents say has proven indifferent to the resulting toxic threat.
Local wastewater is supposed to be treated through a method known as sprayfields, which channel effluent waste into fields to be dispersed and percolated into soil. But environmentalists complain the sprayfield system has become a toxic cesspool, and a newly constructed one has been botched.
Retired schoolteacher Ben Eaton, a member of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health & Justice (BBC) tells The Nation he’s seen firsthand seemingly contaminated water coming out of the faucet. While the group lacks the funds to do comprehensive testing of the water and sanitation systems, most residents, he says, have resorted to using bottled water: “It’s not just sometimes; anytime we have a fire, our water becomes brown, every time we have a bursted water main, our water becomes brown.”
According to Eaton, the water problems reflect real racial and economic divides in the region. “It’s just a poor area, and it’s predominantly black. So we’re not getting any help from [state environmental authorities] and we’re definitely not getting any help from the city officials…Anything we get back, it’s always [officials saying they] don’t know what we’re talking about.”
BBC argues that, had officials only listened to residents when the town obtained over $2 million in US Department of Agriculture funding to redress the sewage crisis in 2012, it would not have wasted federal and local bond money on a solution that has only created more toxic waste.