Are These $2,000 Water Bills Racist?

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Decades of disinvestment and failing infrastructure short changes Black communities.

When Tyrone Pettway saw his water bill in October 2021, he thought it was a typo. The bill was for $2,384.51, some $2,300 more than what he usually owed the Prichard, Alabama water board every month.

The document claimed Pettway, his wife, and their five kids had used 167,000 gallons of water over the course of the 34-day billing period, amounting to nearly 5,000 gallons a day. But Pettway was sure they had used no more water that month than they normally did: 3,700 gallons total, or about 18 gallons per person per day—much less than the national average of 82 gallons a day per person.

They hired a plumber who said there was no leak on their property. Pettway was not surprised. “If I had a leak, pushing that kind of water, I would see it somewhere,” he told NBC 15 News following the incident. “Even if it was underground. It’s going to float up somewhere.” So they disputed the amount. They did not have much choice. Pettway is a self-employed construction worker. He makes enough to provide for his family and his community—he builds ramps for free for disabled people—but that’s about it. Instead of acknowledging Pettway’s concerns, however, the Prichard Water Works and Sewage Board sent him a new bill for November, which took his charges and added extra expenses, bringing the cost to almost $3100, according to court records. Pettway again disputed the bill. In response, his water was shut off.

It was two days before Thanksgiving. The family had to move their holiday plans. They showered at the neighbor’s house and brought in water from outside sources to drink. “It was an emotional strain,” said Roger Varner, a lawyer who Pettway hired. “You have to say to your son or daughter, ‘We have to bathe elsewhere because I can’t afford to provide as a parent.’”

After the technician left, Pettway found Varner, a young Black man and rising star attorney in Mobile, a city seven minutes south of Prichard. Varner had never heard anything about Prichard Water before meeting Pettway. But once he did, 10 other Prichard residents came to him with similar stories. In May, he filed a complaint against Prichard Water for negligence, breach of contract, and deceptive trade practices, among other things. “Prichard is one of the poorest cities in Alabama,” Varner told me, referring to the fact that 30 percent of the nearly 19,000 residents live in poverty and the median household income is $32,900. “These are just completely unpayable bills.”

Prichard is not alone in facing astronomical water bills. They are a problem in communities of color across the country, where repairs of decaying infrastructure have not kept apace with inflation. “These issues are pervasive,” Marccus Hendricks, an advisor to the White House Council’s environmental justice team, told the Bloomberg School of Public Health. “There are cities, both big and small across the nation that are suffering from infrastructure in disrepair.”

Some argue that the trouble with Prichard Water Works & Sewage Board began in early 2018, when members of the board allegedly began embezzling public funds. An early 2022 joint FBI-Mobile sheriff raid found items ranging from Gucci bags to plasma TVs hidden away at the home of Water Board manager Nia Bradley. Further investigation led to Bradley’s arrest and subsequent charges of theft for embezzling as much as $3 million between 2018 and 2021, according to a local news station. Since then, several other Prichard Water employees have been arrested on similar charges. Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich said during a press conference that residents’ high-water bills were also part of the investigation, reported. Ross, the water board’s own attorney, called it “the worst case of public corruption I have ever seen.” (Bradley’s lawyers have said some of the purchases were authorized as part of her compensation package and denied the existence of other purchases.) 

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