BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — An advocacy group claims Alabama health officials are discriminating against residents of a poor, mostly black county by failing to address sanitation problems that led to an outbreak of a parasite most common in underdeveloped countries.
San Francisco-based Earthjustice said it filed a civil rights complaint with the federal government on behalf of residents of Lowndes County, which is one of Alabama’s poorest areas yet lies just a few miles west of the state capital of Montgomery.
The nonprofit environmental law firm contends state and county health officials have failed to address sewage conditions that led to a hookworm problem in the county, which once was a hotbed of civil rights activity and is part of an impoverished region called the Black Belt.
Dr. Scott Harris, head of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said he hadn’t seen the complaint but denied that racial bias was behind the agency’s actions in Lowndes County. He says the agency is working on solutions.
“It’s not a race problem, it’s a poverty problem,” Harris said in a telephone interview.
The area’s dense soil, composed of clay and chalk, reduces the effectiveness of ordinary sewage systems, and some homes drain human waste directly into open pits or ditches that overflow during storms. The complaint, filed with Health and Human Services, contends state and county health officials have failed to address the problem.
“We hope that the Department of Health and Human Services will exercise its power under federal civil rights law to resolve the discriminatory conduct that has long deprived African-American residents in the Black Belt from functional wastewater systems and adequate protections of their health,” Earthjustice attorney Anna Sewell said in a statement.
The state has denied claims made in a study about a hookworm outbreak in the county, which has a population of roughly 10,000 people. Nearly three-quarters of them are black, and Census statistics show more than 30 percent live in poverty.
The anti-poverty nonprofit Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, which initiated the complaint, said the sewage problem in Lowndes is another form of racial oppression toward black residents.
A study by Baylor University last year concluded that about one-third of the county’s residents tested positive for low levels of hookworm, an intestinal parasite that typically spreads through human feces. It is most commonly found in non-industrial nations in the Southern Hemisphere.
State health officials released an announcement in April disputing that the county was suffering an outbreak of hookworm. The study released last year was based on technology not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Harris said, and it wasn’t large enough to be statistically meaningful.
“Our view isn’t to say there’s no hookworm problem, it’s to say that study didn’t validate that,” said Harris. “There are problems that need to be addressed and we support efforts to do that.”