Poor People,  Poor Soil, Poor Sanitation

An Alabama coalition aims to address severe problems with failing and nonexistent onsite systems in an impoverished region of Alabama
Poor People,  Poor Soil, Poor Sanitation
Standing pools of raw sewage are common in Lowndes County and the 12 other counties that make up the Black Belt region of Alabama. They are among the poorest counties in the nation; annual per capita income in Lowndes County is just over $12,000. (Photos courtesy of Catherine Coleman Flowers)

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You might think raw sewage running through yards would be a thing of the past in the United States. Yet it is so common in the poverty-stricken Black Belt region of Alabama that even the United Nations has become involved in an environmental and public health issue endemic to the area for decades.

Compounding the poverty is the rich, dark soil that earned the Black Belt its name in the pre-Civil War era, when it was one of the wealthiest areas of a young country. The fertile clayey soil is great for growing cotton, but doesn’t perk well, and so engineered onsite treatment systems are often required.

“These are people who can’t afford a conventional septic system, much less an advanced system,” says Dave Roll, executive director of the Alabama Onsite Wastewater Association (AOWA).

AOWA has arranged for the installation of more than 100 systems in the last three years for impoverished families. “That doesn’t even scratch the surface,” says Roll. “We’re talking about thousands of people.”

Pres Allinder, director of the Alabama Bureau of Environmental Services, says AOWA’s efforts have been tremendous. “They get companies to donate chambers and pumps, we donate soils work, installers donate time and equipment, and AOWA uses it as training for continuing education credits,” says Allinder.


Among the poorest

Helping people in such desperate conditions is “heartache and pain,” says Charlie King Jr., an onsite installer and owner of King & Rudolph Construction. “There’s nothing much you can do but pray, and cut costs every chance you get.”

King is also chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Lowndes County, one of 13 counties in the 200-mile-long Black Belt that are among the nation’s poorest. Unemployment in the region runs around 20 percent, 30 percent or more of residents live below the poverty line, and 40 to 90 percent of homes have no sewage treatment or inadequate septic systems. Of the systems that do exist, about half are failing because of the soil conditions.

“Sanitation is inaccessible for a substantial proportion of Lowndes County residents,” says a 2011 U.N. report. But help may be on the way, and installers will be an important part of the solution, as an unknown number of decentralized wastewater systems will be needed – largely low-pressure drip systems.


Rural and remote

Conditions today are deplorable: “You have waste running directly out of houses into ditches and backyards,” says King. “Kids are playing in those backyards. It gets into streams and the water table, and people are drinking it. You just can’t deal with the issue if you don’t have any money.”

The U.N. report mentions a 2008 case in which a 27-year-old single mother living in a mobile home with her autistic child needed to replace a failed septic system at a cost of $6,000 to $20,000. With an annual income of $12,000, the woman had no options.

Septic systems often cost more than people’s homes. “They’re thinking of what it takes to put a roof over their kids’ heads and put food on the table,” says Allinder. “They’re not thinking about how to get rid of sewage. It’s a very distant priority.”

It was 2003 when the Black Belt’s long-standing problem finally gained attention. “An old grandmother who was raising 10 of her grandchildren all by herself didn’t have an onsite system and her neighbor complained to us,” recalls Allinder. “This was a dangerous situation for her grandkids and everyone around there.”

The state issued a notice of violation. With no money to do anything about it, the woman ignored it, and an arrest warrant was issued. Allinder says warrants are normal, but arrests aren’t the goal; the warrants are intended to get people to take the situation seriously and seek assistance. But when this woman got into other legal trouble and didn’t show up for a court date, a frustrated judge used the state’s warrant to affect her arrest on the unrelated criminal case.

“It hit the newspapers that the health department had arrested a grandmother, and it made national news,” says Allinder. “We got a huge black eye over it, and it took a long time to make people realize what had actually happened.”


Opportunity for change

People and organizations rallied to support the grandmother, and there were several meetings to clear the air. “It was a huge blowup, and then turned out to be one of the best things to happen because it got a lot of the players together,” adds Allinder. Soon, 70 people in the county who had been cited by the state got free onsite systems.

The National Center for Neighborhood Enterprises (NCNE) provided much of the funding, arranged short-term loans, solicited donated services and equipment, and began pursuing a federal grant. In 2006, the NCNE’s local effort transitioned to the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise under the leadership of director Catherine Coleman Flowers.

A $575,000 U.S. EPA grant finally came through in 2010 to develop a master plan to address the raw sewage problem in Lowndes County. With in-kind contributions, the grant is worth $771,000.

The problem eventually drew the attention of the U.N. independent expert on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, who held a hearing in February 2011. Flowers, who is also rural development manager for the Equal Justice Initiative, was one of those to testify. “Soils with better infiltration characteristics are not locally available and must be transported from distant locations more than 30 miles away,” she stated. “Several dump truck loads are needed to construct a typical mound.” 

That led to a summit in November 2011 that brought together experts from across the country. “So many people in the Black Belt area and other spots have no septic systems or failing systems and no hope for anything better,” says Allinder. “There is tremendous hope that the grant will be really helpful, and I have full confidence that it will be.”

The grant is administered by Flowers. “She’s doing a heck of a job,” says Allinder. “She’s fighting an uphill battle but she’s trying hard. She has pretty much dedicated her life to it the last several years.”


Now is the time

With funding in hand, several organizations have hit the rural roads of the Black Belt to get a handle on the scope of the economic, environmental, and public health problem. “We’re doing a house-to-house survey,” says Flowers. “We’ll determine who has a functioning system, who doesn’t, and who has raw sewage on the ground.”

The surveyors are using GPS to plot their findings to help engineers propose solutions, such as locations for cluster systems. Flowers says people have been surprisingly forthcoming. “People are telling us if they have raw sewage on the ground; they’ve offered to be interviewed and even photographed,” she adds. One reason for that cooperation, Flowers says, is that she and the people doing the surveys have family ties to the area and are known in the communities.

The Rural Community Assistance Partnership, which has field offices in all 50 states, is also working with existing water authorities to organize wastewater management entities across the region to provide structure.

It’s expected that many neighborhood cluster systems will be needed, along with other options such as individual septic systems and perhaps even composting toilets for remote homes, some of which are 10 miles or more from their nearest neighbors. The next summit is planned for spring 2012 to review the survey findings. At that point, a good estimate of the overall cost should be available so that grants and other funding can be sought.

“We need to be mindful of clean water and the public health risks associated with raw sewage, the kind of diseases that can wipe out a community,” adds Flowers. “We need to find a solution that is sustainable and not a band-aid. We would like to become a clearinghouse to share with other communities so they can learn from what we’ve done. We want to make a difference.”


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