[News] Filthy water and shoddy sewers plague poor Black Belt counties

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jun 3 11:15:09 EDT 2015

  Filthy water and shoddy sewers plague poor Black Belt counties

    Overflow of raw sewage poses serious health risks, including return
    of diseases believed extinct in the US

June 3, 2015 5:00AM ET
by Ashley Cleek <http://america.aljazeera.com/profiles/c/ashley-cleek.html>

HAYNEVILLE, Ala. — Rain makes Charlie Mae Martin Holcombe nervous. 
First, her toilets start to bubble. Then, if Holcombe sees a bright red 
light flash on across the street, she knows the city sewer system is 
going to back  up, filling her yard with raw sewage.

“When the weather man goes to talking about bad storms, you worry sick 
that everything is going to flood up. [Sewage] was coming back in my 
bathtub one time. I broke down crying,” Holcombe explained.

For 32 years, Holcombe, 66, has lived outside the town of Hayneville in 
Lowndes County, Alabama. She pays for city sewer and installed a septic 
system for backup. Across the street from her house is the city's lagoon 
sewage system, a series of football-field-size ponds that hold waste 
before it is treated. For years, rain has caused the lagoon to overflow 
and back up into Holcombe's front yard. Every time the red light goes 
on, Holcombe reports the problem to the city and drives with her husband 
and son to a family member's house where they can use the bathroom and 
take a shower while the city pumps out her yard. Recently, a team of 
professors from Baylor College of Medicine took samples of the soil in 
Holcombe's front yard and cautioned her not to let the children in her 
family play outside.

For decades, across a region known as the Black Belt for its past as 
Alabama's cotton capital, poor counties have struggled with inefficient 
or non-existent sewer systems. Much of the soil is a chalky clay that 
prevents water from percolating into the earth, causing septic tanks to 
back up, lagoons to run over, and sewage to pool in yards and roads. 
According to census data from 2010, only around 20 percent of the people 
in Lowndes County can connect to the municipal sewer, while 80 percent 
must finance their own method to dispose of waste. Scientists and 
activists worry that the area's inability to deal with sewage poses 
serious health risks, including the reemergence of parasitic diseases 
long thought eradicated in the U.S.

In 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur issued a report 
about poor sanitation and the access to safe drinking water throughout 
the U.S. The report highlighted communities in California's San Joaquin 
Valley, in Appalachia, and Alabama's Black Belt. These are regions that 
have been historically poverty-stricken with little access to higher 
education or steady employment, and where life and infrastructure have 
barely improved in decades. The Alabama Department of Public Health 
estimates 40 to 90 percent of households have either inadequate or no 
septic system and of the systems that have been installed, half are failing.

When Dr. Jefferson Underwood started practicing internal medicine in 
Alabama in the 1980s, he saw many patients from the Black Belt who 
complained of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and encountered diseases he 
had only read about in medical textbooks.

“Intestinal worms. I have even seen patients who had hepatic cysts from 
parasites,” he said, explaining that such diseases are linked to poor 
sanitation and assumed to exist only in developing countries. Underwood 
never thought to connect the problems he was seeing to the area's lack 
of sewer systems. Now looking back, he wonders.

Alabama's Black Belt has long been plagued with diseases related to poor 
sewage, like hookworm, a tiny parasite that enters the body often 
through bare feet and sucks blood from the lining of the intestines. 
While hookworm is not deadly, it can stunt growth, cause intellectual 
delays and lead to anemia.

A graduate research paper from 1993 notes that at a small clinic in one 
county in the Black Belt, 34 percent of children under 10 were infected 
with hookworm [PDF] 

Catherine Coleman Flowers walks behind an old trailer, where a PVC pipe 
drips raw sewage into marshy grass. The water runs into a small ditch 
and flows into a thin stream full of excrement and trash. A rectangular 
scrap of corrugated metal separates the polluted stream from a 
neighbor's basketball hoop.

Flowers is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Alabama 
Center for Rural Enterprise <http://acrecdc.com/> (ACRE). She grew up in 
Lowndes and a few years ago conducted a door-to-door survey about sewage 
and sanitation across the county.

For years during the course of her visits, residents complained to 
Flowers about persistent nausea and diarrhea. After reading a The New 
York Times op-ed 
by Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at 
Baylor College of Medicine, about how poor communities across the South 
are at risk for tropical diseases, Flowers asked Hotez to run tests in 
the Black Belt.

In August 2013, Hotez and Dr. Rojelio Mejia traveled to Lowndes to test 
residents for parasites and protozoans like hookworm, ascaris and 
strongyloides — all of which are associated with poor sanitation.

“As soon as there is an area with poor sanitation and rain, that's where 
I look,” explained Mejia.  He has not yet published the results of the 
test but warns these parasites are still an issue in Alabama.

However, state epidemiologist Dr. Mary McIntyre, who has worked for the 
Alabama Department of Public Health since 2011, said the state has 
received no complaints and no positive tests to indicate that there is 
any outbreak of gastrointestinal diseases in the Black Belt. She said 
the state would like to test the population but cannot force residents 
to submit to examinations.

Legally, Alabama requires that all homes have a working septic system. 
However, many residents cannot afford to purchase or maintain a septic tank.

“We have been trying to get help to deal with this for years. The state 
has been trying to go after the homeowner, but the land doesn’t 
percolate — [the homeowners] can’t change that,” Flowers said. “And the 
remedy is too expensive for the average family.”

Lowndes is one of the poorest counties in the nation. The median 
household income is around $26,000. There are few jobs. One-quarter of 
residents live in poverty, and a septic system can cost from $6,000 to 
$30,000, depending on the soil.

Parrish Pugh, environmental director for the Department of Public Health 
across several Black Belt counties, said it is the responsibility of the 
homeowner to install and maintain a working septic tank. In the past, 
lack of a working septic tank could result in a warrant being issued for 
the homeowner's arrest. Pugh said the Department of Health will work 
with residents to find affordable solutions to their sewage problem, 
however, if residents don't comply after several months, legal action 
can be taken.

“People need to understand it's not just flush it and it goes away 
forever,” Pugh explained. “Safe sewage disposal is most important for a 
community — more than safe drinking water.”

Between 1999 and 2002, 10 people in Lowndes County were charged with 
misdemeanors for failure 
<https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2091578-pdf-3-arrests.html> “to 
install properly functioning sewage disposal systems” and warrants were 
issued for their arrests. Department of Health officials have said they 
no longer issue arrest warrants as of 2002; however in 2014, the pastor 
of a church in the Black Belt was arrested and charged with “improper 

In Alabama, the failure of sewage systems stretches across the state. An 
hour’s drive from Hayneville, the city of Uniontown received $4.8 
million in 2012 to repair its sewage system. Half of the grant was from 
the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the other half was 
financed by municipal bonds.

No one knows how many years the old sewage spray field in Uniontown has 
been overflowing into a local creek. A spray field is a method of sewage 
maintenance where a plot of land is fenced off and untreated sewage is 
sprayed into the field and absorbed into the soil. However, because the 
soil was not permeable, sewage water collected at the spray field's 
barrier and overflowed into a nearby creek. In addition, every time it 
rained, the local lagoon spilled over, flooding fields, cow pastures and 
another creek. A local farmer told environmentalists that his cows had 
sores on their hooves from grazing in sewage.

The city hired Sentell Engineering Inc. and approved plans to build 
another spray field less than a half mile from town.

However, two years and $4.8 million later, environmentalists say the 
problems have not been fixed and the new spray field is unusable.

When Ester Calhoun first heard about the $4.8 million grant, she was 
ecstatic. Calhoun grew up in Uniontown and moved back a several years 
ago to find her hometown gutted by environmental problems. Uniontown 
hosts an industrial landfill, a depository for coal ash, a cheese 
factory, whose smell curdles the air, and a malfunctioning sewer system.

Now, Calhoun and her colleague Ben Eaton believe the $4.8 million dollar 
grant has been wasted.

“We tried to tell them, ‘It's not going to work,’” Eaton, a retired high 
school teacher, explained. “[We told] the city officials, the EPA, USDA, 
the engineer, [U.S. Representative] Terri Sewell, Alabama Department of 
Environmental Management (ADEM). They just continued on.”

The problem, Eaton and Calhoun say, was that as with the old spray 
field, the soil under the newly built spray field doesn't absorb water.

“Even a child could understand it,” Calhoun said, exasperated. “If it 
rained, God’s water don’t go in the ground. How in the heck do you think 
sewage is going to go in the ground?”

Currently, the state environmental agency, ADEM, has forbidden the city 
from testing the new spray field, because the engineer failed to run 
tests to ensure the ground would percolate prior to 
construction.*//*Without testing the spray field, the city cannot close 
out the USDA grant or apply for additional funding, which officials says 
they need to start another project to pipe treated sewage into the Black 
Warrior River. The city estimates that project would cost an additional 
$2.6 million.

The engineer, John Stevens, who heads Sentell Engineering, said he could 
not speak about the new spray field “because of ongoing litigation,” but 
that Sentell had fixed the overflow problem at the lagoon.

However, according to documents from the state [PDF] 
as of last year, the lagoon continued to overflow into a local stream, 
and as of March 2015, the old spray field continues to spill around 
100,000 gallons of sewage water into another creek.

“All signs point to the willful ineptness of Sentell Engineering,” 
argues Nelson Brooke, executive director of the Black Warrior 
Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group*/./* Brooke also blames the 
state for not enforcing environmental regulations. “It's unbelievable 
that ADEM has allowed this to go on for so long,” he said.

ADEM has never fined Uniontown for any violations. In response to 
questions, the agency said they have “expended significant resources” 
and “taken enforcement actions in an attempt to bring the city into 

The city of Uniontown did not return repeated calls for comment.

ADEM, Uniontown and Stevens are in ongoing litigation.

Eaton and Calhoun say they have been branded “radicals” by the Uniontown 
city council. Eaton said he recently had his house appraised and learned 
it had depreciated by $50,000 because of the environmental problems in 
Uniontown*.* His brother and sister-in-law refuse to visit because of 
the smell.

As it nears 6 p.m., the air stagnates with the sharp smell of sewage.

“You have to think, there are cattle, and where are they drinking water 
from? And then they get slaughtered,” Calhoun said. The creeks that have 
been polluted by sewage travel past pastures and fields, past catfish 
ponds, and eventually into the Alabama River and out in the Gulf of 
Mexico. “It's everybody else’s problem too.”

Flowers believes this is a problem the U.S. should be able to fix in 
2015. She has invited teams of researchers and student engineers to 
Lowndes County to design new, affordable sewage treatment systems.

Professor Joe Brown is originally from the Black Belt and teaches 
environmental engineering at Georgia Tech. One afternoon, Brown and his 
students surveyed the land behind a neighborhood of trailers. One of the 
trailers had a malfunctioning septic system, while another had a PVC 
pipe streaming sewage into the woods.

“It's an intractable, unsolved problem and a legacy of the 
post-plantation non-economy that's [in the Black Belt],” Brown 
explained. “These are people living at the fringes. These are not people 
who are well connected politically and economically. If a poor black 
person is complaining and there’s no politician around to hear it, do 
they make a sound?”

But Brown, like Flowers, is optimistic he and his students will find a 
solution. “I am not into futile efforts,” he said, pragmatically.

Holcombe, meanwhile, said she is waiting for the year when spring break 
comes and her son and grandchildren can go outside and play in their 
yard. Or for the night when she can fall to sleep to the sound of rain 
and not fear waking up in the morning.

/Additional reporting by Marla Cichowski and Ash-har Quraishi/

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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