A group of African American citizens filed suit today against their city government in Rochelle, Ga. for discharging the city’s raw sewage onto their properties.
White residents of Rochelle live predominately on the south side of the city’s railroad track. African Americans live largely on the north. The residents say the city has repaired and updated its sewage pipes on the south side of the tracks but has let repairs lag on the African American side. As a result, untreated sewage backs up and overflows into the streets and the yards of residents on the north side of the tracks.
The residents are being represented by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization whose Florida office is handling the litigation. The Clean Water Act suit, filed in the United States District Court, Middle District of Georgia, seeks to stop the unpermitted discharges of raw sewage from manholes, broken pipes and a ditch.
The suit would also prevent the city from bypassing its sewer system and forcing citizens to release sewage into their yards in order to keep it out of their homes. The suit also alleges that the discharges and bypasses are violations of the Clean Water Act.
John Jackson, one of eight Rochelle residents represented in the suit, spoke of the city’s long-term unresponsiveness.
“It wasn’t of use to even go to city councils because if you would say something about a problem they would always tell you, ‘We’ll get around to it,’ or they didn’t have money or this and that. But they’ve gotten grants, and the grants never came on the north side of town over here,” he said.
Residents also attest that because the city’s sewer system is so old, sewage backs up in underground pipes during heavy rains, making it flow up into African Americans’ houses through bathtub and shower drains. To keep the sewage out of their houses during heavy rains, residents remove plugs from sewage pipes or craft other strategies on their own to make the sewage pour into their yards instead of their houses.
The city’s sewage conveyance pipes date back to the 1940s.
The residents say they have to shovel and bury fecal matter, toilet paper and other noxious debris left in their yards after sewage overflows, which have taken place three or four times a year for decades. Sewage also overflows from manholes and broken pipes into a ditch along the north side of Rochelle and out into Mill Creek, which eventually flows to the Suwannee River, they say.
“Sewage overflows my pipes and flows under my house,” said Rufus Howard, another Rochelle resident represented by Earthjustice. “It’s time somebody did something about it. They [the white community] live comfortably and I want to live comfortably, too.”
Sewage problems have even disrupted the community’s church services.
“We had an Easter program at the church and found raw sewage all over the floors,” said James Woods, a deacon at Piney Grove Baptist Church.
Earthjustice attorney Alisa Coe argues that the conditions for Black residents of Rochelle clearly violates the Clean water Act and the city’s permit. She points out that Mill Creek, once a favored fishing stream used by people in the neighborhood, is now so full of sewage from manholes and broken pipes that it is no longer used at all.
“It is embarrassing that anyone in the United States should have to shovel sewage and toilet paper out of their front yard,” said Coe. “The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 to stop this kind of thing. If the city can fix it on the south side of the tracks, they can fix it on the north side too.”
Though Coe says that she has had contact with the city’s attorney, she does not know what the city’s position is or why the issue is continuing.
“I’m not sure why they haven’t addressed this problem, we do think that under the Clean Water Act they’re required to fix it,” she said. “But it’s gone on way too long, and it needs to stop.”
City officials would not comment on the lawsuit, and the city’s attorney, John Crowley, declined to be interviewed for this story.