Alabama 7th District U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell joined local officials and experts in Lowndes County on Monday to address what she referred to as a “public health crisis” in rural Alabama Black Belt and surrounding counties.
For decades, homes in rural communities in the state have not been connected to their local wastewater and sewage systems, causing a myriad of problems for the residents. For some, brackish wastewater fills their yard and the smell of sewage, only increased by the heat, wafts through the air.
In poverty-stricken Lowndes County the situation has led to a surge of tropical diseases mostly found in developing countries; hookworm, toxocara, and the perfect breeding grounds for mosquito-borne illnesses, including Zika and West Nile.
Experts suggest 60 percent of homes in some parts of rural Alabama drain wastewater without treatment from a septic system.1 Researchers from the University of Alabama estimate that more than 500,000 gallons of raw sewage enter rivers and streams in Alabama’s Black Belt each day.
“In most countries in the Western world, it’s assumed governments will one way or another make sure basic facilities like clean running water, sewage, and sanitation are available,” Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told the Montgomery Advertiser. “What was striking to me in Alabama was the extent to which there’s no sense that a government should be working towards providing basic infrastructure,” Alston continued. “If you happen to live in one of the big cities, you will get access, but if you don’t — and particularly if you live in one of the poor counties like Lowndes — there isn’t any obligation and there are no plans in place.”
But Sewell is hoping to change that.
On Monday, she called on state departments to stop fining those residents who are living with insufficient and failing water systems; instead asking that they relax the citation practice for a year to give residents time to be identified, and ask for help.
“They [the health department] have been been lenient,” Sewell told the Montgomery Advertiser. “But in order to really have people self-identify, you’re going to have to incentivize that.”
“These are remote areas; they are 40 miles from nowhere,” Sewell continued. “And it’s not just Lowndes County. It’s rural America. Even in Alabama, the problems are not just in the Black Belt. We can’t fine people. We need to help them.”
Sewell met with experts from several fields and local residents to discuss the problem posting a video of her interactions on Facebook, saying that solving the issue “is going to take all of us working together!!”
Sewell’s visit come just a few days after The United States Department of Agriculture announced over $4 billion in national agriculture loan funds assigned to fund rural wastewater infrastructure projects.
The experts she met with said that one-size-fits-all solutions will not work in Lowndes County, saying a mixture of solutions will be necessary for any real change to occur.