Residents Cautiously Hopeful as Waste Water Program Is Introduced in Alabama

Photo: South Carolina DHEC

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

As the nation’s largest-ever infrastructure package makes waves in Congress, a smaller project is making waves in Lowndes County, Alabama. One hundred seventy-five homes are slated to receive new septic systems in the coming months, thanks to the Lowndes County Unincorporated Wastewater Project (LCUWP).

  • About 80% of the region’s residents lack sufficient wastewater treatment and more than 2 million Americans nationwide.
  • The project managers now hope that their non-profit partnership can serve as a model for other jurisdictions to update their systems.

Why This Matters: As much as 20% of Americans rely on septic systems to treat their wastewater, the nation’s septic infrastructure is failing, causing public health and environmental crises. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 40% of septic tanks do not function properly. Failing septic tanks have led to hookworm outbreaks, algal blooms, and groundwater contamination. Many of these crises primarily impact Black and Indigenous communities across the U.S., many of which cannot afford to repair or replace old, leaky systems.

As storms and flooding increase due to climate change, coastal communities that rely on septic tanks will be especially vulnerable to system failure. While the nation eagerly awaits a federal infrastructure bill, partnerships between businesses, government, and communities like the LCUWP can be just what the doctor ordered.

Make Haste, Not Waste: The LCUWP is a non-profit partnership between locals, businesses, the state Department of Environmental Services, and the federal government. Through the program, residents can apply for a new septic system, contribute a down payment, and pay $20 per month for maintenance costs. The program covers the rest of the charges, which can be higher than $30,000. “It already has changed my life,” said Lowndes resident Perman Hardy. “The plumbing system has changed my life. The septic system has changed my life.”

The program hasn’t been without its challenges, though. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture rescinded a $2 million grant from the program. After a political dispute, Hardy was removed from the county’s sewer board, effectively voiding documents she signed to secure the funding.I think it’s unfortunate that it happened, and I hate to see it not be successful,” said Former county commissioner Carnell McAlpine. “Because that is a serious issue in this county with the sewage, and I hope something can be worked out.” Hardy has pledged to continue fighting, and fundraising for the program, and officials have said they intend to continue pursuing the project.

Meanwhile, the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill has opened for debate in the Senate and, if passed, would be the nation’s most significant investment in clean drinking water and wastewater infrastructure to date. The plan would also allow funds from the American Rescue Plan to replace and repair wastewater systems. Even so, many BIPOC residents are reluctant to trust the government after decades of disappointments in places like Flint, Chicago, and now, Lowndes County. Local advocates like Hardy hope that they can bridge the gap. “I built that trust growing up all my life here,” she says to other counties, “You can do the same thing.”

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