October 24, 2016
When it rains heavily, or even moderately, in Lowndes County, Ala., raw sewage backs up into people’s homes, or it pools on the surface of their yards, leaving many residents wading in raw sewage and exposing them to a host of parasites that are not often found in the United States.
The reason for this problem include the characteristics of the ‘black belt’ soils of the area, the inability of many Lowndes County residents to afford the cost of septic systems and a history of inequality related to racial disenfranchisement, government neglect, and poverty.
The Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) – a UUSC partner organization – was founded in 2002 “to address the economic development of one of the poorest counties in America.” Catherine Coleman Flowers, ACRE’s founder and executive director, understands the literally toxic combination of factors that affect many Lowndes County families. As a lifelong resident, she knows about the dense “black belt” soil that is great for growing cotton and other crops but doesn’t allow for traditional individual septic systems to function effectively. She can also cite statistics showing the county’s per capita income of under $12,500, with 31.4% of Lowndes County residents living below the poverty line. And she understands the area’s long history of racial injustice. “Forty-seven of the fifty-four mile historic 1965 voting rights march led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., goes through Lowndes County,” she writes.
Flowers decided to do something to alleviate the impact of poverty and racism in her home county, and founded ACRE as a way to bring resources and solutions to her neighbors. ACRE chose wastewater disposal as a focus for its current work because it’s been a problem for years, and because the effects on the county’s quality of life are profound. For years, people have simply run wastewater pipes from their homes across their yards to nearby wooded areas. Not only do the regular pooling of raw sewage and back-ups into their homes pose health risks, but the daily smell can be intolerable by itself.
Even worse, Alabama public health officials are bringing criminal charges to residents who are unable to pay for new septic systems, which can cost between $6,000 and $30,000. “Imposing punishment on residents who cannot afford septic systems is a prime example of the criminalization of poverty in the United States,” notes Salote Soqo, Senior Program Leader for Environmental Justice and Climate Action at UUSC. “We partner with people like Catherine Flowers and groups like ACRE because they are committed to finding tangible and sustainable solutions, while at the same time exposing the systemic and structural injustices that are often at the roots of these problems.
Learn more about ACRE’s work to ensure equitable access to safe, affordable, and adequate water and sanitation for all communities on their .