Residents in poor rural communities are searching for solutions to a longstanding problem surrounding wastewater management and sewage treatment throughout Alabama’s Black Belt region. Currently, thousands of families have raw sewage collecting in their yards because of inadequate septic systems.
Residents of Lowndes County, Alabama, have suffered from inadequate wastewater treatment for decades. In 2002, state officials initiated criminal prosecutions against dozens of residents who were too poor to comply with state laws requiring them to purchase new septic systems costing $6000 to as much as $30,000. In response to odor complaints, health officials aggressively forced residents to install septic tanks and arrested those who could not afford to comply, including a grandmother who was jailed for not installing a septic system that cost more than her annual income.
Alabama’s Black Belt counties are some of the poorest in the United States, with high unemployment, poor access to health care, substandard housing, low high school graduation rates, high infant mortality, and poor infrastructure. Residents have long observed that government spending ensures good sewer systems in wealthier, more populated areas while neglecting the poor in remote, majority African American counties.
The Alabama Department of Public Health estimates that 40-90 percent of households in Lowndes County, just west of Montgomery, have inadequate or nonexistent septic systems. The high clay content of the area’s fertile black soil prevents wastewater from filtering efficiently. Traditional underground septic systems cannot function properly under these conditions, which require installation of much more expensive above-ground septic tanks.
Catherine Coleman-Flowers, a Lowndes County native, founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise Community Development Corporation, and EJI Rural Development Manager is leading an effort to implement new systems and responses to the wastewater management crisis in Lowndes County. Ms. Flowers has been working with engineers, scientists, political leaders, and community members toward a comprehensive solution to the problem of wastewater treatment in this region. She is currently conducting a house-to-house survey to determine who has a functioning septic system, who doesn’t, and who has raw sewage on the ground.
After the survey is completed, Ms. Flowers’s team will identify and employ alternative decentralized technologies to treat wastewater, create and implement policies requiring residents to connect to public sewers, and educate the community about problems associated with raw sewage. The campaign to implement efficient and cost-effective wastewater systems in Lowndes County could become a model for similarly afflicted communities in the U.S. and around the world.