Alabama accused of ‘highway robbery’ following flooding of predominantly-Black community

ABC News

(SHILOH, Ala.) — In a small Alabama community, residents claim state officials have dodged accountability for what they call environmental racism.

After Black homeowners in the rural neighborhood of Shiloh raised concerns that a highway project caused widespread, repeated flooding on their properties, state officials used an aggressive legal tool to prevent the residents – and future owners of their land – from the possibility of holding the state government accountable through the court system, an ABC News investigation has found.

Three residents of the Shiloh community in Coffee County now have restrictive covenants on their property deeds that “absolutely release, remise, acquit and forever discharge” the Alabama Department of Transportation from responsibility for flood damage. In exchange for signing away these rights, they each received settlements of $5,000 or less, documents show.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and Transportation Director John Cooper signed the settlements on behalf of the state in 2020. Ivey has not responded to ABC News’ request for comment.

Timothy Williams, a pastor and restaurant owner whose family has owned land in Shiloh since Reconstruction, was one of few residents willing to speak with ABC News.

“They’re afraid of the state,” Williams said of neighbors who didn’t want to talk publicly. Williams now worries about the future of the land he’d planned to pass down to his four children.

Shiloh is located alongside U.S. Highway 84, which ALDOT and its contractors widened from a rural two-lane road to a major four-lane thoroughfare as part of a large-scale infrastructure project across several southern states known as the El Camino East-West Corridor. The local construction took place between 2017 and 2019.

When ALDOT announced the project in the 1990s, it touted El Camino as a way to improve safety and efficiency while increasing “the area’s economic development potential and industries’ accessibility to raw materials and markets.”

But Williams has a different take on the project’s actual impact.

“It didn’t help the community, but it hurt the community,” he said. “They took the highway and they elevated it and then forced all the water onto us. I mean, that’s just plain Jane.”

Williams and his neighbors say that since the highway expansion, their properties have flooded just about every time it has rained, causing major property damage along with an increase in frogs and snakes. The longtime residents say their land had never flooded before the project.

The Federal Highway Administration confirmed it is over a year into a civil rights investigation of the situation in Shiloh but would not elaborate and declined an interview request by ABC News. The FHWA website shows dozens of similar investigations into road projects around the country in recent years, but almost all were dismissed.

ALDOT also declined requests for an interview but wrote in a statement to ABC News that the agency believes no unfair treatment occurred in this case and that the project did not discriminate against anyone.

“In the settlements involving ALDOT, there were restrictive covenants to prevent future owners from filing claims because ALDOT maintains that it has not increased the volume of stormwater runoff being placed on the Shiloh Community,” the agency’s statement read. Still, ALDOT told ABC News they’ve hired a consultant to explore possible improvements to the drainage system.

Blake Hudson, Dean of Alabama’s Cumberland School of Law, reviewed the settlements and told ABC News residents could try to make a legal argument that the documents ALDOT called “restrictive covenants” are actually easements – essentially permission for a certain amount of flooding on their land – and that the agency is acting outside the scope of the easements because the flooding has now exceeded the compensated amount.

“That’s a much harder case to make if you knew your home flooded and then you still took the $5,000,” Hudson said. “Legally, those documents can protect the government from suit.”

But even if they are legally sound, he added, these deals may still be “unconscionable” and “unethical.”

Williams said when he signed the settlement, he had no idea how bad the flooding would get.

“We were all misled,” he told ABC News.

Other records obtained by ABC News show ALDOT has been aware of concerns associated with the widening project in Shiloh for nearly five years.

During construction, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management issued a letter warning that the project could violate the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act.

Other ALDOT forms noted that best management practices “have not been properly maintained” and that at one point, “the contractor was ordered to cease all work except items as listed on the corrective actions plan.”

In 2018, an ALDOT diary entry noted that Williams had expressed concern about water draining onto his property, and that he was told ALDOT would use the necessary practices to prevent excess runoff.

Several miles west of Shiloh, a beloved community day care center called The Young World of Learning also flooded during every rainstorm after the construction, which owners Peggy Carpenter and her daughter Ronda Robinson attributed to ALDOT’s widening of the highway.

“They did not think of us, not one time,” Carpenter told ABC News.

Carpenter and Robinson, who are white and did not live at the site of their business, say they ended up closing the day care and agreeing to sell a portion of the property to ALDOT for $165,000 because they were concerned the state would condemn it if they refused.

“I didn’t really want to sell,” Carpenter said. “I felt I had to. I wanted something for it.”

In the sale, Carpenter and Robinson also gave up their rights to sue for future damages. When they found out that the Black residents down the road from them had signed away similar rights but were only paid around $5,000, they were stunned.

“I can’t imagine,” Robinson said. “I feel for them.”

After the day care was sold and demolished, while flooding continued down the road in Shiloh, Williams turned to Coffee County native and Texas Southern University professor Dr. Robert Bullard, who helped coin the term “environmental justice” and has written 18 books on the topic.

“The state is saying that they didn’t cause this problem and there’s no problem,” Bullard told ABC News. “I would say bring your grandmother here to live for a month in one of these houses and they’ll see that it floods.”

Bullard added that Shiloh residents’ generational wealth “is being stolen,” calling the settlements “highway robbery.”

“You can’t do very much with $5,000,” he said. “From my perspective, when you sign a piece of paper for settling in terms of this highway, you didn’t sign away your life. You didn’t sign away your children’s inheritance to be taken away because of flooding [and] because of devaluation.”

Attorney Calle Mendenhall, who represented Williams and the other residents in negotiating the settlements, declined requests by ABC News for an interview.

“It is our policy not to discuss matters related to settlements or other sensitive matters in order to honor our unwavering commitment to providing the strongest legal representation possible,” Mendenhall wrote in an emailed statement.

Several Shiloh residents also reached sealed settlements with ALDOT contractor S.A. Graham & Co. and designer HMB Professional Engineers, both of whom did not respond to requests for comment.

“A settlement should mean that you have resolved something,” Bullard said. “The flooding is not resolved.”

After enduring more than five years of flooding, Williams wants the state government to accept responsibility and stop the devastation.

“All we want them to do is to own up and say, ‘Hey, we messed up,'” he said. But even if that doesn’t happen, Williams added, “We’re not moving. We’re not leaving. We’re going to fight.”

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