EJI Rural Development Manager Catherine Flowers testified before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure about racial disparities in wastewater treatment in Alabama’s Black Belt.
Ms. Flowers grew up in Lowndes County, which is located in the “black belt” region of Alabama. She told the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment that the area is particularly affected by the lack of adequate sanitation services because of its clay-like soil, which worked well for growing cotton during the slavery and sharecropping eras, but makes it extremely difficult to install and operate septic systems.
Due to these inadequately porous “drainfields,” over half of the region is unsuitable for conventional septic systems, meaning that failing septic tanks are common. Most of the soil in Lowndes County requires a more complex type of system, which can cost up to $30,000. Yet the median household income in Lowndes County was only $27,000 in 2016, making more costly systems out of reach for most, and leading people to rely on unpermitted systems after their septic tanks repeatedly fail. Families that cannot afford to install septic systems must use some alternative method to dispose of waste without treatment, such as a straight pipe. Straight pipes are generally metal or PVC pipes connected to a home’s plumbing that discharge raw, untreated sewage directly to yards, ditches, woods, or various surface waters.
It is widely believed that in Lowndes County, over half of homes have either no septic system or an inadequate one, and 50 percent of the septic systems people do have are failing. Families with failing septic systems who could not afford to replace them have been threatened with arrest.
Ms. Flowers’s investigation into the problem of wastewater management in Lowndes County found that the problem is much larger than just failing septic tanks and straight piping. She testified that, since 2002, she has visited homes where, each time it rains, sewage comes back into the house through either the toilet, bathtub, or both. In one town, citizens pay a wastewater treatment fee to a management entity, yet they still have sewage backing up into their homes and yards. One neighborhood in another town is bordered by a sewage lagoon which is full of raw sewage piped there from residents’ septic tanks. In addition to the stench from the lagoon, their tanks must be pumped as often as three times a week to remove sewage from their yards or their homes.
Ms. Flowers testified about families who cannot let their children play outside due to the sewage outside and regularly complain about illnesses. Living with repeated exposure to raw sewage causes acute and chronic health impacts and reduces families’ standard of living. Short-term exposure to parasites, bacteria, and viruses in raw sewage can cause infections or diarrhea and have also been linked with long-term health impacts such as cancer, dementia, and diabetes.
Ms. Flowers engaged tropical medicine experts to look for hookworm and other tropical parasites (which were long thought to have been eradicated from the U.S.) in stool samples, soil samples, water samples, and blood samples in Lowndes County. In September 2017, their peer-reviewed study was published. It found that 34.5 percent of participants tested positive for hookworm and other tropical parasites in Lowndes County. Hookworms are not deadly, but they can cause delays in physical and cognitive development in children.
Ms. Flowers filed a Title VI complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services, alleging that the Alabama Department of Public Health and Lowndes County Health Department have, for decades, been causing an adverse impact on the health and well-being of the black community of Lowndes County by failing to address this problem. The Department of Health and Human Services is currently deciding whether to investigate this complaint.
Ms. Flowers found that in many instances, onsite septic systems and some “package” treatment systems were not working correctly, even after large expenditures by homeowners, and that cheap lagoon systems are generally used in poorer or more rural communities. The problem exists throughout the United States, she told the committee. By some estimates, 65 percent of the land in the United States cannot support conventional septic systems. She cited a recent study that found that by 2040, due to sea level rise, 64 percent of Miami-Dade County’s septic systems could harm people’s health and water supply.
Ms. Flowers called on Congress to act to address this widespread problem that rural communities across the country face. To meaningfully address the issue of inadequate onsite wastewater treatment, she said, a comprehensive approach must be taken. There needs to be an acknowledgement of this problem more broadly. Local, state, and federal authorities also need to eliminate laws, policies, and practices that criminalize residents for their failure to comply with wastewater regulations, even when the cost to do so is substantially higher than their means.
Better data is also needed. The Rural Community Assistance Partnership estimated that more than 1.7 million people in the United States lack access to basic plumbing facilities, and the EPA estimates that more than one in five families in this country are served by decentralized wastewater. But most states do not have an inventory of where septic systems are located. Ms. Flowers suggested that question should be added back to the Census to begin compiling data once again to illustrate the scope of this problem.
Ms. Flowers called on Congress to use its oversight powers to ensure that investments are meaningful, that they are distributed equitably, and that agencies and engineers approving the use of the funds are ultimately accountable if a system fails. Funding should take into account the realities of climate change, community input, and the unique geography of an area.
Funding should go to those who need it most and cannot afford wastewater services or upgrades without assistance. And finally, Ms. Flowers recommended that Congress should ensure that individual homeowners are not responsible if the system that was approved for installment on their property, especially one that is installed using federal funds, fails due to the geography, soil, or other conditions outside of their control.