U.S. Water News Online
HAYNEVILLE, Ala. -- In a rural Alabama county that is one
of the poorest in the nation, hundreds of residents are gathering in
old wooden churches off dirt roads to fight a government crackdown on
homeowners who don't have septic tanks.
Called by friends, neighbors, relatives and radio stations, angry
residents are traveling weekly to share their stories and join in a
movement to find a solution to the problem that doesn't involve
putting people in jail.
``These people are being criminalized because they're poor,'' said
Bob Mants, a leader in the effort to get help to Lowndes County and a
veteran of the voting rights demonstrations of 1965. ``We are
prepared to fill up the jails in Lowndes County. I hope it doesn't
come to that.''
The center of the fight is Lowndes County, where many residents
improperly run their raw sewage through pipes into fields or dump it
in the woods.
Since most of the rural county doesn't have municipal sewer
systems, residents must install septic tanks, which are buried
underground and contain waste that flows from homes.
But many residents in the impoverished county cannot afford the
systems, which often cost between $6,000 and $12,000.
Thirty-seven families have been notified by the courts that they
need to install waste-removal systems or face jail. So far, more than
a dozen people have been arrested and fined. At least 1,200 more lack
septic tanks needed for waste disposal -- and about 1,500 other
families have septic systems that are beginning to fail.
Health officials say the crackdown is unfortunate but necessary
because of the threat of disease such as diphtheria and cholera from
improperly disposed waste.
Another factor in preventing homeowners from installing septic
tanks is geography. Lowndes County is in the Black Belt, an Alabama
region that was named by educator and ex-slave Booker T. Washington
because its dark soil was ideal for growing cotton.
But the rich soil, which grows strong crops, drives up the cost of
septic tank systems because it doesn't absorb water very well, said
Jim Hairston, a soil conservation professor at Auburn University.
Clay in the ground can make wastewater drainage nearly impossible,
so field lines need to be extended to distribute it over a larger
amount of land.
Often, tons of dirt must be hauled from more than 30 miles away at
a cost of $3,000 or $4,000. More money must be spent for a surveyor
to evaluate the soil, and if it's unsuitable for an underground
septic system, a professional engineer has to design a specialized
system, said Pres Allinder, director of environmental services for
the state health department.
``These folks are hit with a double whammy,'' Allinder said. ``Not
only do they not have a lot of money to start with, but they have the
most difficult systems.''
``I don't have any running water, I have high power bills, I don't
have a septic tank,'' said Linda Thompson in a brief testimonial at
the First Baptist Church of Hayneville. ``I have four kids and it's
The potential for disease puts health officials in a bind, said
Ron Pugh, the health department officer who oversees sewage and
septic tanks. Under state law, health officials must send a legal
notice to a residence if there has been a complaint about waste
flowing freely on the property.
Pugh said he turns to the district attorney for an arrest warrant
if a septic tank hasn't been installed within a few months.
A few families have benefitted from charitable contributions, but
not enough to put a dent in the larger predicament.
``If you arrest people, they still won't have septic tanks, and
they will still have health problems,'' said Catherine Flowers,
economic development coordinator for Lowndes County and organizer for
the movement. ``We're not going to allow any families to suffer any
hardship or lose any homes under our watch.''
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