|Lowndes County, Alabama|
A United Nations team that investigates extreme poverty around the world toured the U.S. last year and reported that people in Alabama's Black Belt are "suffering the most dire sewage disposal crisis of any place [inspector Philip Alston] has visited in a developed country," Connor Sheets reported at the time for Alabama.com. Alston noted that residents in rural Butler and Lowndes counties often fall ill with infections from E. coli bacteria and hookworm because of the sewage -- ailments that he said were "very uncommon in the First World."
Lowndes County is one of the poorest counties in the state, with a median income below $28,000. So residents and towns can't afford to put in better waste-disposal systems -- which are more expensive there anyway. Civil engineer Kevin White told Brown that "Normally, it might cost $2,000 to put in a septic tank and a drain field in Mobile or Tuscaloosa . . . But in the Black Belt, with the poor soils, the system has to be so large or so complicated that we’re talking $8,000 to $10,000 or even more." White has been working on creating more innovative and affordable Black Belt wastewater solutions for decades; he led a study for the University of South Carolina more than 10 years ago that found that half of rural households in Bibb County had raw sewage pooling on the ground. He's currently studying similar conditions in Wilcox and Hale counties.
White says these rural areas need creative solutions, such as compost toilets or outhouses, or more efficient (but more expensive) toilet systems that use air and a small amount of liquid to flush. Brown notes, "Plumbing manufacturer American Standard sent a team of engineers to Lowndes County last year and is in the initial stages of developing potential product solutions for rural septic issues."
Catherine Flowers, a Lowndes County native and rural development manager for the Equal Justice Initiative, has been working with researchers at Duke University to explore policy changes, funding mechanisms and septic system engineering solutions to the problem. Flowers told Brown she hopes their work can help other rural communities across the U.S. struggling with similar issues.
"It’s not just a Black Belt problem. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this," Flowers told Brown. "I think what we’re putting together is a template for how these different entities can and should work together to find solutions. We’re working on a life-giving and life-sustaining solution."