Sewage and soil

New wastewater projects seek to solve “alarming” Black Belt sewage conditions

By Sydney Cromwell

By the age of three, Perman Hardy’s grandchildren knew the rule: if it’s raining, you can’t flush the toilet, or else the sewage will just back up into the house.

Hardy, a lifelong resident of Lowndes County, has had a septic tank at her house for 28 years. But because of the Black Belt’s dense, sometimes almost waterproof soil, it never works well and has to be pumped out every two years, sometimes spending money intended for her grandkids’ Christmas gifts.

“All it ever cost me was money,” she said.

Still, Hardy is luckier than some of her neighbors, who can’t afford a septic tank and instead have only straight PVC pipes, which dump untreated sewage on the ground or in a ditch outside their homes.

“What can you do when you can’t afford something and you don’t have the resources?” she said.

In Alabama’s Black Belt counties, an estimated 50% of homes have raw sewage on the ground due to inadequate or failing treatment systems, said Kevin White, professor and chair of University of South Alabama’s Department of Civil, Coastal, & Environmental Engineering. It’s a health and safety crisis that a United Nations special rapporteur called “very uncommon in the First World” during a tour of rural poverty in America in December 2017.

“This is not a sight that one normally sees. I’d have to say that I haven’t seen this,” the rapporteur, Philip Alston, told AL.com while touring a community with straight pipe wastewater disposal in Butler County.

White, along with University of Alabama associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering Mark Elliott and the Alabama Department of Public Health, is now at work on several projects testing new ways for Hardy and other families to have affordable, safe wastewater treatment.

“What we’re hoping to do is basically demonstrate that we can provide a managed sewer system in these rural areas that is affordable for these low-income communities. That’s what we want to do. We’re testing different technology, different management entities to see if we can get the cost low enough that a low-income community can afford it,” White said.

SOIL AND ECONOMIC BARRIERS

The fertile Blackland prairie soil for which the Black Belt gets its name is great for agriculture, but not so much for septic tanks.

Blackland prairie soil has a high clay content, which swells when wet and is difficult for water, whether from rain or from septic systems, to pass through.

Soil map of Alabama, focused on the Black Belt region.
A soil map of Alabama, with Blackland prairie soil shown in pink. Courtesy of Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.

“The water will not permeate this soil, so it’s almost like concrete. It’s not that hard like concrete, but it does not allow water penetration,” White said. “… In fact, the soil is so tight, the water wants to come to the surface. That’s the easiest thing for it to do.”

When that happens, the water doesn’t have a chance to filter out from the septic tank and through the soil. Instead, untreated wastewater returns to the surface, or back up through pipes and into homes.

Even if septic tanks were effective, the price tag would make it impossible for many Black Belt residents to afford the installation and maintenance costs. Installation of a new septic system costs between $3,000 and $10,000, on average, and pumping the tank will put homeowners out another $250 to $500 each time.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, in 2019 the poverty rate across the Black Belt counties ranged from lows of 15.8% in Montgomery and 16.8% percent in Crenshaw to highs of 36.4% in Sumter and 32.5% in Wilcox. The average for the state was 15.6%.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey found that eight Black Belt counties had a median household income of $30,000 or less, the lowest being Greene County at $20,954. 

“That’s not a lot. That’s not per person, that’s per household,” White said.

Only two counties (Montgomery and Washington) out of the 24 that are broadly regarded as part of the Black Belt had median household incomes that exceeded $40,000.

Municipal sewer lines also don’t extend to homes in unincorporated parts of the counties. In Wilcox County, for example, White said only about a quarter of residents are connected to city sewers, and this is typical for the area.

“It’s pretty complicated because the barriers to sewer in these areas are numerous,” he said.

This leaves the majority of residents with a lose-lose choice: an expensive and unworkable septic tank, or a straight pipe.

Using a straight pipe is illegal, ADPH Bureau of Environmental Services Director Sherry Bradley said, but very common and hard to track. The health department has not generally been aggressive about citations for straight pipes, considering the economic challenges that often lead to their use.

Straight pipes dump untreated sewage on the ground a short distance from the house. This can become a breeding ground for hookworm, hepatitis, E. coli and other viruses and diseases, White said. These can be picked up on exposed feet and ankles, or tracked into homes via sewage on the bottom of shoes and pet paws.

Hookworm has been mostly eradicated in the United States for decades, but the parasites are still found infecting humans regularly in the Black Belt.

The fecal matter can also leach into the soil and be carried into creeks and groundwater, contaminating the water with E. coli or other pathogens. It’s a risk to humans, especially if the sewage lands in a drinking water source, but those pathogens can also disrupt the ecosystems of fish, plants and other creatures living in the water.

“We’ve got at least 50% of rural residents that have wastewater issues, raw sewage on the ground,” White said.

YEARS OF WAITING

Use of straight pipes in rural Alabama — and indeed, in rural areas across the country — has been a long-term problem, only expected to get worse with the increasing heat and rainfall predicted to come to the Southeast due to climate change.

Hardy said she has been fighting for better sewage treatment and other quality-of-life improvements in Lowndes County for 25 years.

White, an environmental engineer by training, first started his work in community wastewater treatment when he joined the University of South Alabama in 1991. Those three decades of research have shown him the importance of creating a system that fits the people using it.

One of his early projects was installing onsite treatment systems at homes in Mobile Bay, to reduce fecal contamination in coastal waters.

“What we found was, yes, the systems worked, they treated water quality well, but as soon as things sort of broke down or needed maintenance, … most of the homeowners were not interested in maintaining our wastewater system, so they just unplugged it” and went back to their previous treatment methods, White said.

He added: “It was a learning moment. We need to have not just technology but also management of these systems by someone who knows what they’re doing.”

This led him to the idea of using decentralized infrastructure — that is, systems built for individual houses or small clusters of homes — with a centralized management system to manage their upkeep. White also supported the creation of the Alabama Onsite Wastewater Board, which licenses and regulates those who install or maintain septic tanks and other onsite systems.

White’s first research into wastewater issues in the Black Belt came around 2005, when he did a door-to-door evaluation of 2,000 homes in Bibb County that were not on municipal sewer lines. He said the study found 15% of homes had a straight pipe system discharging untreated sewage, and an additional 35% of homes with septic tanks also had evidence of raw sewage on the ground. Elliott did a similar survey of 400 homes in Wilcox and Hale counties in 2016 and found that about 60% of homes that weren’t on municipal sewer lines were using straight pipes, discharging 500,000 gallons of raw sewage every day in Wilcox County alone.

Those results were “very enlightening and alarming,” White said. “This is a public health issue. And it really kind of shone the light on the wastewater issues in these rural counties.”

A straight pipe issues from the back of a house in Lowndes County, carrying untreated wastewater to be deposited a short distance away. Photo by Rachel Chai, courtesy of Kevin White.

After the 2005 field survey, White said there were years of talk about the problem, but not much action. In 2018, he and Elliott wrote a summary paper of wastewater conditions in the Black Belt and their ideas to solve the issue in ways that will remain affordable for homeowners and can be implemented across thousands of rural households.

Put simply, White said these counties should take a three-pronged approach: extend existing municipal sewers to reach a few more nearby houses; identify clusters of 30 or more homes within a five-mile radius and create a small, managed sewer system and treatment facility for them; and develop alternative, more effective onsite treatment systems for homes “out in the middle of nowhere.”

Of course, implementing any of these solutions requires finding a combination of homeowner, nonprofit and government funding to cover both the initial installation expense and the long-term maintenance. A sewer bill of about $20 a month from 30 homes isn’t enough to pay for the salary and equipment costs of a managed system, but higher bills won’t be feasible for households living below the poverty line.

“How can we raise enough money from sewer fees and other things from the community, but in a way that’s not going to be overbearing for them to pay?” White said.

With grant funding and the support of some state and national partners, White and Elliott are now starting small-scale pilot projects to test some of these proposed solutions in actual homes.

PROJECTS IN THE PIPELINE

After years of waiting and talking — and some additional delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic — White is now addressing the Black Belt wastewater problem on several fronts.

Through a 2018 USDA grant, the ADPH Bureau of Environmental Services, White and the Lowndes County Commission created the nonprofit Lowndes County Unincorporated Wastewater Program (LCUWP) as a way to figure out better ways for Black Belt communities to handle their wastewater.

Bradley said the Bureau of Environmental Services is primarily a regulatory body, but the ADPH decided to step out of that role after the 2017 UN visit put the Black Belt’s wastewater problems in an international spotlight.

“We only got involved because no one else was doing anything but talking about the sewage on the ground, and we developed a best practice model for the local officials to use and duplicate,” Bradley said via email in June.

As part of creating that best practices model, the LCUWP is working with community and county leaders, wastewater system providers, the Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater Management Consortium and funding partners in order to install 100 to 175 septic tank systems for homeowners in unincorporated Lowndes County.

Bradley said that work has also included developing local wastewater disposal ordinances and an education campaign on proper septic tank care.

Phase One will include 100 systems, and Bradley said the LCUWP has received far more than 100 applications. Residents can choose to pay either $500 for a traditional septic tank installation or $1,000 for an engineer-designed system, designed to work in the Black Belt’s soil conditions. The monthly maintenance fee is $20.

There is also a fund to help homeowners within 150% of the federal poverty level with initial buy-in and ongoing maintenance costs, she said.

“The residents are eager for the LCUWP because they’ve been promised so much for so many years and received nothing. Now they see results,” Bradley said.

She said a kickoff meeting and installation will begin soon. Hardy, who is the LCUWP board chair, will be among those receiving a new system.

White, who is serving as a technical advisor for the program, will be able to take samples from any of the systems LCUWP installs and use them for his research, Bradley said.

White and Elliott also received an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant in 2019 to study a few different types of onsite wastewater systems used in Lowndes County over their lifespans, to see what is most cost-effective. They will also develop a how-to guide for communities that want to implement some of these systems, including finding funds, identifying the most suitable technology and creating a management body.

In fall 2020, Columbia University’s World Projects program funded a $710,000 grant for a five-year project by USA, UA, Auburn University, University of North Carolina, University of California – Irvine and the Consortium for Alabama Rural Water & Wastewater Management. Columbia World Projects will also match up to $5 million in additional project funding.

The project’s goal is to further research the impact of inadequate wastewater systems on the health, environment and economy of the Black Belt, and to test new technology for decentralized wastewater systems. It will also include creation of best practices for managing and financing such a system.

White said University of Alabama – Birmingham and UNC have already begun testing children for wastewater-related parasites and diseases in the Black Belt.

He and Elliott are working on creating the first pilot decentralized system in Hale County, with the possibility of three to five test sites in total. White said they are working with health departments to identify communities with the greatest need for these systems. The sites will test different treatment and management methods.

“We want to really evaluate the decentralized concept in rural areas,” White said.

The pilot sites will start with small clusters of homes, but he said nearby communities may be able to tie into those systems in the future, expanding their service area.

Most recently, the Consortium for Alabama Rural Water & Wastewater Management (which includes USA, UA, Auburn and the Alabama Department of Public Health) received a $4.85 million grant from the USDA this March.

The grant will finance site identification, creation of construction-ready plans and training for installers and community leaders — “everything but the construction,” White said. A portion of the funding will also go directly toward the Columbia World Projects research.

“It was a significant award that will allow us to go out into the community more… [and] essentially help people have a better public health exposure,” White said.

PUTTING NATURE TO WORK

White said most of the systems that will be installed at the test sites will use some form of microorganisms “to consume the pollutants in wastewater and to provide an environment that in some way will cause pathogens not to survive.”

For example, individual homes may receive a constructed wetland: basically a lined, shallow bed of gravel that is planted with wetland plants, he said.

Wastewater is piped into the gravel bed, where it takes two to three days to flow through to the other side. In that time, many pathogens will die without a human or animal host. The plants trap and filter much of the particles and solids out of the water, while microorganisms living in the wetlands will feed on the organic materials and even bacteria.

“What comes out the other end is treated… water that can be disposed safely,” White said.

A schematic of a constructed wetlands design. Courtesy of the Federal Remediation Technologies Roundtable.

Constructed wetlands are less expensive to install than a septic system and can even be beneficial as wildlife habitats, though they do require more space and can attract mosquitoes.

Another option that White and Elliott will test is a lateral flow sand filter system. In these systems, wastewater is contained in a small basin, which is covered above ground with a pile of sand 3 to 4 feet tall. The water moves up from the basin through the sand, again filtering out much of the contaminating materials. The treated water can then evaporate into the air, or the sand pile can be covered with sod, which will be watered by the system.

Some of the decentralized system test sites will use septic tank effluent pumps (STEP), White said, which are better suited for water filtration and removal in Black Belt soil than traditional septic tanks. A pump inside the STEP tank moves wastewater through a 2-inch sewer line with filters made of sand, gravel, peat moss or fabric.

Much like the constructed wetlands, these filters encourage growth of microorganisms to consume pollutants and pathogens from the water. White said the technology of membrane bioreactors — combining microfiltration with biological filtration — has improved over the years and can create “very pure water” from these STEP systems.

LOCAL LIVES, INTERNATIONAL IMPACT

The projects funded by these grants will continue over the next two to five years, with the EPA-funded research and LCUWP installations wrapping up in late 2022 or early 2023 and the new USDA grant starting later this year and extending through 2026. The Columbia World Projects grant is only funded through 2022 right now, but White said they are hoping to get refunded through 2024.

After the research wraps up, White said he hopes the test systems installed at the pilot sites will be permanent fixtures, as long as they can create long-term management programs.

“We haven’t even crossed that bridge yet,” he said.

In addition to the collaboration of the various university teams and the ADPH, White said these various projects have gotten support from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, Sen. Richard Shelby and Rep. Terri Sewell. Plumbing trade organizations have helped with reducing installation costs and private companies like American Standard have donated kitchen and bathroom fixtures for the homes receiving pilot systems.

If they’re successful in finding effective and economical ways to treat wastewater in the Black Belt, the health and community impacts across the state could be enormous.

“It’s a challenge that if we solve it, we’ve helped a lot of people,” White said. “How many lives have we saved in the last 150 years that we’ve been treating our drinking water?”

And since straight pipes and untreated wastewater are persistent problems in rural areas across the United States, White said there are plenty of people, nationally and even internationally, interested in collaborating on and sharing solutions.

“The issue in this case is very daunting,” he said. “… There’s a lot of people out there that really don’t know what to do.”

In May he participated in an EPA national webinar on decentralized wastewater systems, where he shared their work in the Black Belt and learned from others doing similar research.

In June, the Black Belt’s wastewater challenges were the topic of a United Nations UNLEASH Hack, a two-day online forum for brainstorming on global sustainability problems. Of the 21 “hackathons” UNLEASH hosted this year, this was the only one focused on a U.S. topic.

“It’s kind of a fundamental thing. All of us want to do the right thing, keep the environment clean, protect public health,” White said.

As for Hardy, every part of the LCUWP program, from the new wastewater system to the faucets and low-flow toilets, is a “blessing.”

“I thank God that I never gave up on finding a solution,” she said. “… I’ve been doing this for so long, and finally we’ve got some answers.”

Hardy said she hopes to see more donations and grants, which would enable the LCUWP to install wastewater systems for more homes in Lowndes County. But in the meantime, she’s pleased that she no longer has to worry about flushing the toilets when it rains.

“I am tickled pink,” Hardy said.

Main article image by Rachel Chai, courtesy of Kevin White.

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