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After DOJ agreement, sewage fix in Lowndes Co. happening a few homes at a time

Twenty-six specific wastewater systems have been installed at Lowndes County homes in the last year, and about a dozen more installations have been approved.

But potentially thousands more are needed, though the exact number of homes without sanitary wastewater treatment isn’t yet known. 

Identifying the need and then fixing it is now the complicated and costly charge of the Alabama Department of Public Health, per a May agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The ADPH is working on a long-range plan to provide wastewater treatment to homes where the clay soil thwarts traditional septic tanks and drain fields and more advanced, expensive systems are out of reach of residents in the county where the median income is about $33,000 and about 29% of the population lives in poverty. Instead, waste can flow out of homes through pipes and onto the ground.

“(The DOJ wants) people to have access to working wastewater systems and so do we,” State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told Alabama Daily News about the federally ordered fix in Lowndes County. “That’s the ultimate goal. It’s going to take a long time to do it.”

“It’s going to take a really long time and a lot of resources.”

The agreement between the DOJ and ADPH followed a nearly two-year investigation by the federal agency. 

“… the investigation revealed that ADPH’s enforcement of sanitation laws threatened residents of Lowndes County with criminal penalties and even potential property loss for sanitation conditions they did not have the capacity to alleviate,” the DOJ said in May. “The investigation also revealed that ADPH engaged in a consistent pattern of inaction and/or neglect concerning the health risks associated with raw sewage. The investigation revealed that despite ADPH’s awareness of the issues and the disproportionate burden and impact placed on Black residents in Lowndes County, it failed to take meaningful actions to remedy these conditions.”

Under the agreement, the state cannot fine or otherwise penalize people who don’t have adequate wastewater systems in their homes and it has to come up with “plans for obtaining and using federal funding, including American Rescue Plan Act, and other funding or technical assistance designated to ADPH from the Alabama legislature or other entities, to (a) install technologically sound, ADPH-permitted onsite wastewater systems designed to function in Lowndes County site conditions…”

The agreement was the first environmental justice settlement ever secured by the DOJ under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and it plans for more. Lowndes County was prominent in the DOJ’s first report on environmental justice enforcement strategy report in October.

“They didn’t find that we had discriminated against anyone or broken any laws, but they wanted us to help address this issue of wastewater in Lowndes County in particular,” Harris said. 

“… We’re talking about probably thousands of people and costs that are going to be tens of millions of dollars. And that’s only one county.”

Engineering a fix

Sewage issues have been well known throughout the Black Belt for decades, though it was Lowndes County that got the DOJ’s attention. Harris noted that in north Alabama, mountainous terrain can prevent the use of septic systems. 

Northwest of Lowndes County, officials are piloting in Hale County a “decentralized cluster system,” that can connect relatively close rural homes to a shared wastewater filtration system. 

The first phase of the project is now under construction and should be completed next month. It involves Auburn University’s Rural Studio in Newbern, part of its School of Architecture. It’s meant to be an example to communities that the systems are not foul-smelling eye sores, advocates said earlier this year. A second phase that could connect up to 150 homes is in the design phase.

In Lowndes County, the ADPH is still surveying to get a better scope of the need, and potential cost. It’s still unknown how many houses need septic services. The department is working with local organizations, government and churches, as well as the DOJ and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Harris’ isn’t a department full of engineers, but it’s learning and contracting with experts.

Who picks up the tab?

Because traditional septic tanks don’t work in the Black Belt soil, more advanced — and expensive — systems are needed. They can include additional pumps and holding tanks.

Things that exponentially increase the cost, Harris said.

“In some cases, you can actually dig up all the soil on your property and import new soil to replace it,” Harris said. “Then, you have soil that you can put a conventional system in.” 

Again, an expensive option, he said. 

Some of the more expensive systems installed this year cost more than $30,000, ADPH said.

“It’s going to take a really long time and a lot of resources,” he said. 

Harris is asking Gov. Kay Ivey and lawmakers in his department’s fiscal 2025 budget request for $5 million specifically for Lowndes County because that’s about the amount it could spend in the year. 

But lawmakers, who delegate state funds each year, aren’t sold on picking up the full tab for fixing private residences.

“To answer your question directly, no, the state is not prepared for that obligation,” said Senate General Fund committee chairman Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore. He has been an advocate for a Black Belt water fix and the Hale County project. But he’s said the state isn’t going to fund it alone.

“The difficulty is not the willingness of the state to address this,” Albritton said. “It is the willingness of the residents and the local authorities to assist in making this work.” 

Across the region, part of the problem is a lack of enforcement of existing health codes.

“It has to be done with local interest and local regulation,” Albritton said. “It’s not the state’s role.” 

In the meantime, ADPH is installing especially engineered systems as it can, like the 26 this year.

For now, ADPH is installing systems a few at a time.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Harris said. “There’s a lot of need there. It’s not clear that we’re going to have the resources we’d like to have to address this problem.”

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