The plaintiff, represented by Vermont Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic and Earthjustice, was illegally denied access to public records regarding wastewater treatment in Uniontown, Alabama.
Uniontown, Ala., resident Benjamin Eaton today filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for unlawfully withholding public records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). These records, which Eaton and fellow Uniontown advocates have been seeking since October 2020, may hold key information concerning the failure of a local water and sewer board to uphold state law and civil rights protections.
“It's time to take the next step for the communities that have been dumped on and taken advantage of because we are poor, or because we are Black,” Eaton said. “Agencies like the USDA are in place to protect people and the environment, so that we can have a safer and better life. They have a duty and they have a job, and they have betrayed us. We must call them out.”
In Uniontown, approximately 90 percent of residents are Black and more than half live below the poverty line. Residents suffer the detrimental impacts of several polluting facilities, including a massive 974-acre landfill that accepts waste from 33 states, a catfish processing plant and feedmill, and a cheese processing plant. The town’s sewer system is outdated and relies on an antiquated treatment lagoon and open sprayfields, where sewage is collected in a large cesspool and then sprayed onto a field. Accumulated waste has been discharging into a nearby creeks for decades. Failures in the system have caused routine pollution permit violations, constant sanitary sewer overflows, and noxious smells. Residents have complained of skin rashes. Lead has been found in water surrounding the city, and arsenic in nearby creeks. These environmental insults place a disproportionate burden on community residents, affecting their health, lives, and livelihoods.
In 2018, USDA approved a grant to the city of Uniontown for more than $23 million to update the city’s outdated sewage system. However, Uniontown’s Waterworks and Sewer Board has failed to share information about these upgrades with the public, holding closed-door meetings and resisting requests for information despite calls for transparency as required under the Alabama Open Meetings Law and the Alabama Open Records Act.
In October 2020, concerned with the lack of public participation offered by USDA and other officials in using the funds to improve publicly-owned sanitation systems, Eaton submitted a FOIA request to USDA seeking records related to the grant’s funding and the commitments required of the local government upon receipt of the funds. Despite being required to release records within 20 days—and Eaton’s repeated follow-up requests—USDA still has not released the records or offered an estimated completion date.
“Uniontown residents must have a meaningful opportunity on matters that impact their health, safety, and well-being, as well as the fiscal stability of the city,” said Vermont Law School Environmental Justice Clinic attorney Michael Harris. “Not only is transparency required under state law, but it is essential to uphold Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which require local officials to ensure that policies and procedures do not limit participation and accessibility when administering federal money.”
Today’s lawsuit seeks an acknowledgement of USDA’s violation of FOIA, as well as injunctive relief directing USDA to immediately provide Eaton with the requested material.
“Community members are legally entitled access to this information,” said Earthjustice supervising senior attorney Anna Sewell. “Transparency is needed to ensure that they have a voice in the decision-making processes that affect their livelihoods and future.”