Why Ethics Matter in Environmental Issues: The Sewage Crisis in Lowndes County, Alabama

The ethical and moral considerations needed to address environmental issues are often forgotten. The scientific and economic aspects of these problems often lead the conversation, yet these aspects are just a part of the framework that should be used to tackle environmental challenges. Using an ethical framework of thought is vital to taking a holistic approach to tackling our world’s pressing environmental matters.

I recently became interested in wastewater treatment issues in Lowndes County, Alabama and realized how this environmental issue was rich in ethical ones. Improper sewage infrastructure has led to a sewage crisis in this community of mostly impoverished, black residents. This is an environmental health issue in that the proper handling of waste is important for ensuring a healthy living environment free of damaging pollutants and toxins. The black clay soil, that was once used for growing cotton, does not allow for proper percolation of wastewater and leaves many septic system vulnerable to back-ups. Unfortunately, solutions often entail installing a new septic system which would cost families a fortune. Thus, residents often resort to the failing sewage systems that pipe out waste into pools which become breeding grounds for disease which sometimes leads to hookworm infection.

For this blog post, my intent is to talk about ethics and why it is important to reflect on how systemic inequality plays a role in this problem. I argue that this sewer crisis is largely an ethical concern because the access to proper sewage treatment is a basic human right the government should ensure to its citizens. Moreover, the historical context of Lowndes County and the disparities caused by institutional racism may be reason to add ethical considerations when discussing this sewage issue.

In an interview I conducted with Catherine Flowers, an activist and founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, she noted that there had been cases of Lowndes County residents who were fined or arrested for their inability to comply with Alabama wastewater laws. This is precisely why ethical considerations must play a part in solving these types of issues. Arresting people for not complying with wastewater laws effectively shifts the blame on residents for the issues. This is wrong given that the financial difficulties in attaining proper septic systems may have been influenced by a history of inequality. I believe that Alabama could be morally obligated to correct the failing sewage systems of Lowndes County, not the individual homeowners. This moral obligation comes from the need to correct civil rights infractions and uphold basic human rights.

After the abolition of slavery, the black families that stayed in Lowndes County had to tackle another major problem—segregation and the structural methods government officials used to ensure their oppression. This includes discrimination in housing, jobs, and education. Over time, these discriminatory policies only widened the wealth gap between blacks and whites by making it tougher for black families to acquire the resources needed to establish wealth. This includes things such as living in a well-maintained community, having a nice-paying job or career, and most importantly, access to proper education.

The discriminatory policies that have led to a history of poverty make it particularly concerning that Alabama officials would punish citizens for failing to comply with wastewater laws that were made without considering the financial obstacles people would need to face in order to do so. We must question the ethics of blaming a marginalized group for problems that were created at the institutional level. Although the Alabama government is not actively targeting black citizens or arresting them just because of their race, when it comes to this issue with sewage treatment, it would be beneficial to consider the role that structural barriers built by the government play. I think that these considerations might help communities and government to work together because it lets the people of Lowndes County know that their rights and what ought to be done is being looked at.

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