Lack of Septic Systems Spell Disaster for Low-Income Alabama Residents

Low-income Alabama residents who can't afford the cost of a functional septic tank run the risk of heavy fines and even arrest in addition to extremely unsafe conditions.

December 3, 2020, 11:00 AM PST

By Lee Flannery @leecflannery

Septic Tank

sonsam / Shutterstock

In a piece adapted from the New Yorker print magazine, Alexis Okeowo describes Alabama residents' lack of access to functional sewers and septic systems. Dense Black Belt soil, the namesake of the area, causes trouble for traditional septic tanks, which house waste until it can be broken down by microbes. Because of the difficulty in maintaining such a septic system, Okeowo says, 40% or more households don't have a proper sewage disposal system. 

"The state of Alabama mandates that anyone who is not on a municipal sewer line—which includes eighty per cent of Black Belt residents—invest in a private waste-management system," writes Okeowo. "In Alabama, not having a functioning septic system is a criminal misdemeanor. Residents can be fined as much as five hundred dollars per citation, evicted, and even arrested," says Okeowo, highlighting the gravity of the situation.

The systems, which can cost up to $20,000 are not always easily afforded by some Alabama residents. "Floods carry sewage across people’s lawns and into their living areas, bringing with it the risk of viruses, bacteria, and parasites that thrive in feces. Studies have found E. coli and fecal coliform throughout the Black Belt, in wells and in public waters," writes Okeowo.

Okeowo's piece tells the story of the activism of Catherine Coleman Flowers to respond to the public health threat that are, "to some officials," Okeowo writes, "as much a matter of personal responsibility as of public health," noting their shirking of responsibility. Instead, Flowers sees the lack of comprehensive sanitation solutions as a product of a history of inequity in the region. "During the past several years, Flowers told me, she and her staff have helped a dozen families move into safer homes."

Monday, November 30, 2020 in The New Yorker

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