Excerpted From: Lindsay Norton, Let's Talk Dirty: Revealing the United States Sanitation Crisis and its Disproportionate Effect on Poor and Minority Communities, 34 Villanova Environmental Law Journal 85 (2023) (204 Footnotes) (Full Document)


LindsayNortonThe Black Belt region of the southern United States, which spans from Alabama to Mississippi, received its name because of its non-absorbent, dark, and clay-like soil. This soil, while ideal for growing cotton, is impenetrable and does not absorb water properly. Consequently, sewage and wastewater accumulate and create a hygienic nightmare for the region's residents. In Alabama, for example, residents living outside of municipal sewer lines must install individual on-site sanitation systems such as septic tanks. Onsite septic tanks are not conducive to the weather and soil conditions in the region, and they often malfunction. Climate change, in the form of intense rainfall, causes flooding, which pools wastewater across land surfaces and often into homes, causing entire towns to smell like sewage.

The Black Belt region, historically known for its pre-Civil War cotton plantations, bears remnants of its slave roots with persisting racial disparities. Most residents of the Black Belt region are African-American, and they face enhanced rates of poverty, unemployment, poor health, and infant mortality compared to white residents of the region. Lowndes County, Alabama, for instance, has a population of roughly ten thousand residents, of which seven thousand are Black. Many of the Black citizens are descendants of the slaves who once labored in this region. Today, white landowners own the best real estate in the area, whereas Black residents live in the less desirable parts of Lowndes County near “sewage lagoon[s]”. Housing disparities stem from both wealth and race, and these inequalities bear harmful environmental and health consequences for poor, rural, and minority communities.

Lowndes County, Alabama is not a unique outlier. Over two million people across the United States lack access to sanitation services and clean water. The United States, even as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, does not provide universal access to clean water and sanitation. The Human Rights Council of the United Nations defines sanitation as “a system for the collection, transport, treatment and disposal or reuse of human excreta and associated hygiene.” In 2010, the United Nations recognized sanitation as a basic human right. Despite this public and international recognition, millions of Americans have little or no access to proper sanitation.

The gap in access to basic sanitation disproportionately affects poor, rural, and minority communities and perpetuates a cycle of poverty and racial inequality. The burden of obtaining costly sanitation and wastewater systems falls on those who are already marginalized and lack governmental support. Environmental racism is an all-too prevalent phenomenon in the United States. This type of racism forces African-Americans and other minorities into separate communities and creates far-reaching disparities in housing, education, health care, and many other aspects of life. Environmental racism, a term Benjamin Chavis coined in 1982, refers to environmental policies and practices that systemically discriminate against people of color. Often termed the “New Jim Crow,” environmental racism results in impaired environmental quality and exposure to environmental harms such as pollution and disease in minority communities.

This Comment seeks to bring attention to the role environmental racism plays in exacerbating the sanitation crisis in the United States for marginalized and minority groups. To illustrate the severity of the crisis poor and minority communities all across the United States face, this Comment uses Lowndes County, Alabama as a case study. Part II outlines the legal framework for sanitation law in the United States by pointing out gaps in regulation and funding of wastewater infrastructure. Parts III and IV conduct a case study of Lowndes County, Alabama to highlight environmental racism and its link to accessing adequate sanitation services. Part IV also discusses a recent Department of Justice investigation launched in Lowndes County to probe discriminatory sanitation policies in Alabama. Finally, Part V explores the disproportionate impact of the United States sanitation crisis on vulnerable populations and suggests potential solutions.

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Inadequate sanitation creates environmental catastrophes when raw sewage builds up and pollutes land and bodies of water, including sources of drinking water. Proper wastewater management is necessary to protect the environment, public health, and plant and animal species. Inadequate sanitation also impacts climate change: wastewater is responsible for around three to seven percent of all greenhouse gas emissions around the world. Investing in wastewater infrastructure to manage sanitation can aid in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as managing sewage can transform wastewater from a carbon source to one of clean energy. Better water governance is necessary to aid in wastewater management. Existing federal laws focus on clean water and access to drinking water, but they must extend to sanitation. While states have their own sanitation regulations, a comprehensive legal framework at the federal level would help to monitor sanitation and provide guidance to states.

Proper sanitation is a basic right, yet it is something that many people take for granted, particularly because it is so essential to everyday functions. For the millions of Americans who lack access, however, adequate sanitation is considered a luxury. The gap in access to adequate sanitation manifests across both racial and economic lines. The sanitation crisis will continue as long as the public avoids discussing it. Sanitation is certainly not a glamorous topic--it is unpleasant and, consequently, does not receive the public attention needed to address the current crisis. It is time for Americans to engage in these difficult and unpleasant discussions to mobilize support for federal action and save millions of marginalized Americans from their hygienic nightmare.


J.D. Candidate, May 2023, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law; B.A.,