Rural wastewater program loses USDA grant

Program to replace ‘straight-pipe’ systems on hold after losing $2 million in funding

by Sydney Cromwell

The Lowndes County Unincorporated Wastewater Program, a community project to replace unsanitary straight-pipe wastewater systems with better septic and sewer systems, has lost $2 million in federal grant funding.

Lowndes County, like much of Alabama’s rural Black Belt, does not have an extensive sewer system and the soil causes problems for traditional septic tanks. Many residents cannot afford the purchase or maintenance of these systems, instead using straight pipes to dump sewage on the open ground.

These straight pipes have been linked to public health issues like hookworm, E. coli and hepatitis, among other diseases. The LCUWP was established through a 2018 grant to provide 100 or more sewage treatment systems at an affordable cost to county residents, along with ongoing maintenance and health education.

Alabama Department of Public Health Bureau of Environmental Services Director Sherry Bradley, who helped Lowndes County commissioners and residents launch the LCUWP, said the $2 million that was lost in July was from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant originally awarded in January.

The grant funds documents had been signed by LCUWP board member Perman Hardy, whose home was one of five to receive the first experimental sewage treatment systems earlier this year. However, Lowndes County Commission Chair Charlie King claimed that Hardy was never formally appointed to the board, and the Commission voted to remove her on June 28, less than a week after the LCUWP held its pre-kickoff meeting for the project.

Bradley said she asked the Commission to extend Hardy’s term for a short time in order to secure the grant funds, but once Hardy was removed, the USDA documents she had signed were no longer valid and the project became ineligible for funding.

This also caused the LCUWP to have to return some of the local matching funds it had raised to receive the grant, according to reporting by AL.com.

For now, this means the plans to install more sewage treatment systems is on hold indefinitely. Bradley said the program is continuing to seek grant and funding sources to restart its work, and the program is still taking applications from homeowners who want one of these systems.

Read more about the health and environmental harms of straight-pipe sewage systems, as well as efforts by the LCUWP and researchers to improve sewage treatment, here.

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

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