The Clean Water Act (CWA), passed in 1972, is one of America’s most important pieces of environmental legislation. The law regulates the release of pollutants into surface waters, and establishes federal enforcement authority. A key component of the CWA is the “citizens’ suit” provision which gives individuals the right to sue not only polluters themselves, but also the government for failure to exercise its enforcement authority.

The CWA’s citizens’ suit authority was recently invoked in a case out of Rochelle, GA, a de-facto segregated, rural, deep-south town. In Rochelle, the majority of the black population lives to the north of the railroad tracks, whereas the majority of white residents live south of the tracks. The city’s sewage system, like many in the USA, dates to the 1940’s. Cracks in the concrete sewer pipes and manholes let storm water flow in, flooding the system and forcing raw waste into people’s yards and homes. Whereas the City had maintained the system in the majority white part of town, these problems had not been addressed for decades in the black part of town.

According to Earthjustice, the environmental advocacy law firm which helped bring the lawsuit:

“Sewage backs up in underground pipes during heavy rains, making it flow up into African-Americans’ houses through bathtub and shower drains…

The residents 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.”

In August of 2013, a group of residents filed suit against the City of Rochelle in Federal Court. Approximately one year later, the City agreed to replace the faulty sewage pipes, pumps and manholes at a cost of $830,000.00.

Citizens’ suits are a powerful tool that allow marginalized people, like those from the wrong side of the tracks in Rochelle, to take on unresponsive and unrepentant authorities.