The Plight of the Poor: Raw Sewage in Lowndes County


Residents of Lowndes County, Alabama, have suffered from inadequate wastewater treatment for decades. As part of EJI’s work challenging conditions of poverty in rural and urban communities, EJI Community Organizer Catherine Coleman-Flowers has been seeking solutions for residents in Alabama’s Black Belt and documenting the problem of raw sewage and inadequate wastewater management.

In partnership with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), EJI identified thousands of families in Lowndes County who live with raw sewage pooled in their yards and near their homes because local government does not provide adequate wastewater management.

The Alabama Department of Public Health estimates that 40 to 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 that cost between $6000 and $30,000.

In wealthier, more populated areas, government spending ensures good sewer systems, but in remote, majority African American counties throughout Alabama’s Black Belt, the poor are neglected by elected officials who not only fail to provide financial assistance for low-income households to obtain mandated septic systems, but also have criminally prosecuted poor families because they lacked the money to install new septic systems.

Exposure to raw sewage in Lowndes and other Black Belt counties has led to a high incidence of gastrointestinal illnesses. A forthcoming health study by Baylor University’s National School for Tropical Medicine based on 2013 testing facilitated by Ms. Coleman-Flowers will report on the significant health challenges caused by poor sewage and wastewater management in Lowndes County.

EJI and ACRE are working to 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.