LOWNDES CO., AL (WSFA) - Alabama's Black Belt counties have struggled with inefficient or non-existent sewer systems for years. Some residents have raw sewage filtered right into their yards. It's a complex issue that officials say is tied to poverty and to the soil itself.
Efforts to address the problem are ongoing. Activists and researchers have raised public health concerns, and the region has received recent national attention as new steps are taken to make improvements and improve access to proper sanitation.
Charlie Mae Holcombe dreads a stormy forecast.
"If it rains constantly for several hours, then my yard is flooded," Holcombe said. "This is a place of terror."
Holcombe lives outside of Hayneville's city limits but says sewage from the city wastewater lagoon across the street regularly backs up in her front yard.
"My situation is terrible. I've been dealing with this ever since 1987 when I moved here, and I have gotten no results. I'm still going through and fighting the same problem over and over again," Holcombe added. "The city has had to come out here and pump with the truck and pump the waste up out of my yard. When it gets so bad, waste even comes back up in my bathtub. There are times when the water comes out black."
At a home down the street, residents are dealing with a different situation but similar woes. Sewage runs straight from the bathroom into the yard. Wads of toilet paper and waste are visible near the water meter.
Catherine Flowers is the founder and executive director of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable initiatives to strengthen the infrastructure of families in rural and impoverished communities.
"People are living amongst raw sewage. And part of the reason is because, in the case of Lowndes County, you have people who are poor and we have soils that are not conducive to conventional systems and the systems are very expensive and people can't afford them," Flowers explained while standing in front of a pit of waste behind a disabled veteran's house in White Hall.
ACRE has been working for years to shed light on the long-standing sewage issues plaguing the Black Belt counties.
In Lowndes County, Hayneville, Mosses and Fort Deposit have sewer systems, and White Hall is getting one. In rural areas, residents rely on on-site septic systems, which come with massive challenges in that section of the south.
"The Black Belt, as you know, is named as such because of the rich black fertile soil. But it's that very soil that creates some of the problems for homeowners," said Parrish Pugh, environmental director for the Alabama Department of Public Health for a number of Black Belt counties. "Some of the areas of clay don't tend to take water very well and as many people who live there know, it has tendency to shrink, well and crack and it moves a lot. That high clay content does not lend itself very well to water absorption. Hence, on-site septic systems don't work well in it at all. That really creates a problem for the homeowner on a limited budget."
Conventional systems cost around $3,000, but many residents need engineered systems, which can cost anywhere from $7,000 to $20,000.
"People can't afford the massive cost. Poor families can't afford it and even for a working class family, if the system costs $15,000-16,000, to have to come up with that kind of money at one time, that doesn't happen," Flowers said.
The Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise conducted a door-to-door survey about sewage and sanitation in the county and estimates that there are at least 1,000 homes in Lowndes County without no septic system at all and that more than half of residents are living without one or with failing systems, either because they can't afford to fix it or they can't find one that works with the soil. The Center for Rural Enterprise's research indicates that 75 percent of septic systems in the Black Belt are currently failing, expected to fail in the future or are non-existent.
The law requires that every home or business in the state of Alabama have a properly permitted means of sewage disposal. Residents with on-site systems have to go through their local health department. There are steps they have to take in order to evaluate their site and make sure the proper system is put in to serve their home.
As for city sewer systems, they are regulated through the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. The agency makes sure the systems are adequately sized and maintained in order to accommodate the high volume of sewage coming in on a daily basis.
When the Alabama Department of Public Health receives a complaint that someone is not in compliance, they locate the site and meet with the property owner and assess the situation to determine if it's a valid complaint or not. If it is a valid violation, they issue a notice. Normally with on-site sewage systems, the homeowner is given a 30-day notice to correct the situation and work from there with the permitting process -- either a permit to repair an existing system or for a new septic system installation if it's a new location.
Continued noncompliance could result in legal action, per the law.
"Our whole goal in this is to bring this to a resolution not only for members of the community but for the people themselves there in that home- them, their children and their family," Pugh said. "We have a tendency to work with them. As long as they're working with us, we'll work with them because we want it brought to a resolution that's acceptable by both parties."
Sherry Bradley, director of ADPH's Bureau of Environmental Services, issued this statement:
Solutions to the sewage problems have been hard to come by.
"There is no easy answer and I think if there were an easy answer, it would have been fixed," said State Sen. Hank Sanders. "That's not something you can put on a county commission in my opinion or the small town or the state. This is a disaster and usually disasters are dealt with by the federal government. It's a unique combination that is hard to find a solution to. It's something we've been struggling with for years and I have not been able to find a source of funding to help."
Lowndes County Commission Chairman Robert Harris says the county must compete for grant funding with other counties in the state. He would like to see legislation that would require a septic system to be installed with the purchase of a mobile home. He also would like to see other parts of the county like Collirene and Hicks Hill/Black Belt follow in the footsteps of White hall with installing new efficient, sewer systems.
The $1.4 million project in White Hall is being funded by federal grants through the USDA Rural Development and HUD Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) as well as loans. A new wastewater treatment facility is being constructed, along with over 20,000 linear feet of low-pressure sewer main and fifty seven new sewer connections.
Constantine Engineering designed the sewer system and will oversee construction and startup of the new system on Freedom Road between US Highway 80 and the Jackson-Steele Community Center in White Hall. Constantine is installing effluent sewer technology which is a fraction of the cost of central sewers, has low initial capital cost, low operation and maintenance costs and low and graduation repair and replacement costs. No heavy equipment is required for maintenance. Primary treatment is in 1000-1500 gallon tanks installed at homes.
"I wish that we could figure out how to get all the cluster areas on the systems," Robert Harris said.
Funding streams remain scarce for those unable to afford or maintain a septic system.
"The health issues are all around us and so it needs to be eradicated some type of way and money is going to be the key element to solving those particular issues," he said. "It's going to take a lot of money. It's going to take a lot of effort. It's going to take legislators acting so that funding can come to Lowndes County for that purpose."
"We're trying to raise the visibility of this problem so that hopefully there would be policies in place and funding in place because to have policies and no funding, it's going to continue. People are just going to go underground. We just won't know that this happens," Flowers added. "The remedy has been left up to the homeowner which is a travesty."
In addition to the on-site sewer issues there are issues with wastewater treatment systems at smaller cities and towns in the Black Belt and beyond, according to Mike Mullen Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental organization.
"There are systems that have permit violations that persist for many months, sometimes years without ADEM compliance-enforcement action sufficient to return them to compliance," Mullen said. "I believe this is a significant problem that the State of Alabama has failed to successfully address. It is one of a number of environmental issues in Alabama that fall under environmental justice/environmental inequity."
In August, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $4.9 million in new funding for projects geared at protecting public safety and health, improving water and wastewater infrastructure and creating expanded economic opportunities in rural Alabama.
In Hayneville, a grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs helped expand the city's wastewater treatment lagoon.
But Charlie Mae Holcombe says she still deals with the lagoon overflowing into her yard when it rains.
"The waste just sits out in my yard over and over again. It has come all up to my patio. It's pathetic. It's sickening," she said. It's just like everybody has turned a deaf ear. Even the federal government. They are just as unconcerned. We were told not to be outside in bare feet. What kind of life is that for any person or child to live? It's really sad. I would love to see the day that my babies can go out here and play in the yard."
Hayneville officials said it would be very difficult for the lagoon to overflow and the site is closely monitored. Since the completion of the lagoon expansion in 2013, the City of Hayneville has not reported any overflows from the lagoon to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, according to ADEM spokesman Jerome Hand.
Hand says that while failing residential septic tanks and/or lack of proper sewage systems are typically addressed by the regulations administered by the State/County Health Department, ADEM has participated with various state and federal agencies as well as academia in various discussions to assist in identifying solutions to the sewage issues in the Black Belt counties.
"These discussions centered around regulatory pathways, treatment technologies, and potential funding mechanisms. To our knowledge at this time, a solution has not been determined and a funding mechanism has not been found," he added.
ADEM offers the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) which is a low interest loan program intended to finance public infrastructure improvements in Alabama. Any public body, including counties, state agencies, incorporated cities and towns, boards, and authorities, may apply for SRF financing. An ability to repay must be substantiated along with meeting other specified standards.
USDA Rural Development offers long-term, low-interest loans and grants to non-profits, public bodies, and Federally-recognized Tribes for wastewater disposal in rural areas and towns with fewer than 10,000 people. The funding may be used to construct, enlarge, extend or improve sewer systems for the purposes of sewer collection, transmission, treatment and disposal to serve residential and commercial customers (schools, medical facilities, businesses/ manufacturers, public buildings, etc.). White Hall received USDA Rural Development Funding (a $1,024,000 grant and $112,000 low-interest, 40-year loan) for the construction of their new wastewater treatment facility.
Before a project begins, USDA can also assist very small, financially distressed rural communities with pre-development costs for proposed waste disposal projects. Eligible applicants may receive up to a $30,000 grant to pay pre-development planning costs, including preliminary design and engineering analysis, feasibility studies to support applications for funding waste disposal project and technical assistance for the development of an application for financial assistance.
Fort Deposit's Water Works & Sewer Board received a $29,580 pre-development grant to conduct an analysis of the existing sewer system and to determine the cost and feasibility of upgrading and expanding the existing sewer system.
The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs has also provided funding in the Black Belt for years, offering competitive grants for water and sewer improvements.
The Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise has invited teams of researchers and student engineers to Lowndes County to help with the problem. A group with the United Nation will visit the Black Belt in December to look at human rights issues stemming from improper sanitation.
"We're actually trying to partner with people to see what can be designed that will work. I think we need to have a wastewater challenge where we design systems and test them to see whether or not they'll work. If we find something that works with our soils, then I think we'll be a long way to finding a solution," Flowers said.
Researchers with the Baylor College of Medicine say they've discovered a resurgence of parasitic diseases like hookworm in rural Alabama because of poor sanitation and septic system failure. They presented their findings at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene annual conference in October.
Scientists with Baylor University's National School of Tropical Medicine traveled to Lowndes County in 2013 to test for possible parasites. They collected stool samples from 56 patients (ages 8 to 60 years old) and 34 soil samples (near sewage runoff) and reported finding that several gastrointestinal parasites (Necator americanus, Strongyloides stercoralis, Entamoeba histolytica) known to be endemic to developing countries are present in Lowndes County, among those who have never traveled abroad.
"This begins to shift the idea behind global health- many of the world's neglected tropical diseases are paradoxically found in some of the wealthiest countries, especially in these small regions of extreme poverty," scientists wrote in their report.
The National School of Tropical Medicine hopes to broaden their study to adjacent counties in the future. Their findings still have to be peer-reviewed by the scientific community before they are published.
"Opening medical access to poverty stricken communities in the U.S., and with the introduction of more advanced diagnostic techniques, emergence of rare, endemic infections with low disease burden may become less defined by geographic location and more by economic status, especially in conditions conducive to parasite transmission," scientists added.
Dr. Mary McIntyre, state epidemiologist, says the Alabama Department of Public Health has no evidence to support a resurgence of parasitic disease in rural Alabama.
"Our test results use an approved methodology and not a research methodology," McIntyre said. "Additional assistance offered and still is available. We are still willing to work to get additional specimens for testing. We will gladly do a town hall meeting to explain appropriate collection of specimens and provide kits for these."