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America Has a Sewage Problem

Faulty septic systems are making pollution and health problems worse in much of the country. What we don’t know is how much worse.
by | March 2019

For more than 15 years, Catherine Flowers has been spearheading a lonely and frustrating campaign in Alabama’s Black Belt to install and improve a simple but crucial piece of infrastructure for the far-flung homes in the area: septic tanks. 

Her efforts began in 2002 shortly after officials in the Black Belt’s Lowndes County threatened to jail two dozen residents for inadequate sewage treatment, which is a misdemeanor under Alabama law. Somewhere between 40 and 90 percent of the homes in the county had a failing septic system, or none at all. The residents, who were predominantly black and poor, could not afford the thousands of dollars needed to install new underground sewage tanks. Even if they could afford them, there was no guarantee that the tanks would work in the area’s dark clay soil. That soil sits on top of layers of chalk and silt that trap water and prevent it from seeping further into the ground, a huge problem for septic tanks that work by dispersing contaminated water through the ground for filtration. 

Even brand-new septic systems often fail in the fields of Alabama if they aren’t properly designed for the environment there. Systems specially built for the Black Belt’s geology can cost more than $6,000, twice as much as a standard septic system. The most elaborate ones go for as much as $30,000, more than the value of some of the homes they are meant to serve. With all the difficulties, many residents don’t bother to install septic systems; they simply run a pipe out of their homes to a ditch nearby.

The threat of arrest is only one of the many dangers that residents with failing or no septic systems can face. Untreated sewage pools in people’s yards give off a foul stench. Black water backs up into their sinks, drains and bathtubs. The exposure can have dire consequences for residents’ health. 

Flowers knows that threat firsthand: A few years ago, she was bitten by a mosquito flying over an uncovered pool of sewage in one resident’s yard. The next day, she broke out in a rash all over her body that didn’t go away for months. The incident led Flowers to ask questions about the health effects Lowndes County residents were facing. She invited researchers from Baylor College of Medicine to look for a possible resurgence of tropical diseases in the area. They found evidence of hookworm, a disease largely eradicated in most developed countries, in more than a third of the residents they sampled.

That finding brought the attention that Flowers had long been trying to attract. Reporters from The Guardian, PBS NewsHour, VICE, Al Jazeera, Fox News and The New York Times all came to investigate. So did a United Nations official studying extreme poverty in the United States. Far-off politicians, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and newly elected U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, rallied to the cause. 

But there was another group of people who started getting in touch with Flowers. To them, the problems associated with septic systems weren’t exotic stories in faraway locales; they were all-too-familiar situations right at home. Flowers started hearing from activists and community leaders from California, Kentucky, Texas and Virginia. Leaky septic tanks cause algae blooms that close beaches on New York’s Long Island. They threaten dolphins and other aquatic wildlife in Florida. One of the striking things, Flowers says, is how many of the people affected by wastewater problems are poor or belong to historically marginalized groups. Widespread poverty and lack of political capital only make the task of addressing sanitation issues tougher. “I think the problem is bigger than we realize,” Flowers says. “It’s not just a one-off thing. Rural communities have ignored this issue for a long time. That’s important because, even if we solve the problem with Lowndes County, that doesn’t solve the problem for the rest of the country.”

Indeed, problems associated with septic systems seem to be getting worse, and not just in rural areas. The number of systems is increasing, fed by population growth and urban sprawl. One out of 5 Americans is dependent on them. Developers regularly install septic tanks in suburban communities to avoid the cost of sewer connections. Meanwhile, septic systems installed decades ago are under stress as population swells in previously rural areas. Climate change can cause new problems, as fierce storms flood drain fields, groundwater levels rise in coastal areas and higher temperatures allow tropical diseases to flourish in exposed pools of sewage. 

Simply put, septic systems are getting harder to ignore. Officials at both the state and local levels must increasingly wrestle with how to safeguard individuals’ health and protect the environment, without saddling poor residents with the hefty costs of repairing or replacing septic systems.

 


Lowndes County residents gathered in a church in 2002 to voice their concerns about their septic systems to state and local officials. (AP)

 

When Joan Rose set out to study the watersheds in her home state of Michigan a few years ago, her goal wasn’t necessarily to focus on septic systems. Rose, a Michigan State University professor and one of the world’s leading hydrologists, considers herself a “water detective.” By studying the microbiology of water, she can tell you a lot about pollution and whether bacteria in the water came from cattle, pigs or humans. 

While studying 64 watersheds on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Rose found a lot of human-based pollution. She tried to pinpoint where it was originating. “But the only relationship we could find,” she says, “was with the increasing number of septic tanks.” 

Rose discovered that even “working” septic tanks weren’t filtering out all the pollution they were designed to keep out of lakes, streams and rivers. “We used to think that once [waste] goes into a soil, we don’t have a risk,” she says. “We realize now that there are many, many contaminants that move through the soil: viruses, nutrients and even bacteria.”

Unlike sewers, which whisk dirty water away through pipes to a water treatment center, septic tanks filter the water onsite. They sort the waste into three layers: scum, sludge and wastewater. Bacteria eventually break down the scum at the top of the tank, while sludge falls to the bottom. (Septic tanks have to be pumped out periodically to work properly.) The wastewater, or effluent, sits in between the scum and the sludge. It flows into underground pipes near the tank and is released into the ground in an area called the drain field. Septic systems rely on the natural filtration of the soil to eliminate the worst contaminants in the water. But most are designed to filter out only disease-causing bacteria and viruses. They aren’t capable of removing nitrogen or phosphates, which can wreak havoc on aquatic environments by causing algae blooms, fish kills and ocean dead zones, where most marine life cannot survive. 

Rose was telling Michigan residents that their septic systems weren’t very good at screening out bacteria. Not surprisingly, she started getting questions about how many of Michigan’s 1.4 million septic tanks were failing and where. But her study didn’t reveal that kind of detail. In general, she believes, between 10 and 20 percent of septic tanks are failing without the owner’s knowledge. 

Michigan is the only state in the country that does not have a statewide law governing septic tanks, so the task of keeping track of them falls to the counties. That means the rules about how often or even if septic systems have to be inspected vary by county. It also means that it’s hard to track all the septic systems that may impact a river that flows through several counties. Advocates in Michigan have been pushing state lawmakers for at least 15 years to set up a statewide system. “A huge motivator behind legislation,” says Deena Bosworth, the director of governmental affairs for the Michigan Association of Counties, “is that we don’t know the extent of the problem.”

The most recent effort fell apart because the legislation would have affected the dozen or so counties that already require septic system inspections when properties are being sold. It would have prevented them from requiring inspections beyond statewide minimums, a nonstarter for counties and environmental groups. “Statewide standards aren’t out of line,” Bosworth says. “But if local governments want to be more restrictive, they should be able to.”

Unlike in Michigan, political inaction has brought septic system contamination to crisis levels in Long Island. Suffolk County, on the eastern side of the island across the sound from Connecticut, has 1.5 million people and about 365,000 underground sewage tanks. Nearly all the tanks are leaking harmful pollutants -- especially nitrogen -- that are threatening the area’s environment as well as its economy. Algae blooms have closed beaches. Nitrogen pollution has all but killed off the once-famous clamming industry. And pollution may have made the effects of Hurricane Sandy more extreme by eliminating coastal vegetation and wetlands that could have provided a natural barrier to the storm.

The prevalence of septic systems in the area has stymied economic growth, because they can’t handle big developments. They need space for their drain fields, which means they are usually used for small buildings next to empty land, hampering the area’s ability to build dense projects. Steve Bellone, the county executive since 2012, has been trying to chip away at the long-standing problem, both by building sewers where feasible and by upgrading existing septic tanks to prevent them from leeching so many harmful chemicals into the soil.

In January, voters in two parts of the county approved $360 million in sewer projects, which Bellone says will serve 6,400 parcels in some of the most ecologically sensitive areas. The key to the new construction was state and federal disaster recovery money for rebuilding after Sandy. County officials selected the projects so that they would help mitigate the impact of future disasters by restoring natural storm barriers. “The marshlands, wetlands and seagrass have been devastated by the decline in water quality and pollution over the last four decades,” Bellone says. “This is part of the effort to remediate the pollution in the waterways by reducing nitrogen inputs.”

Local property owners also assumed some of the costs of building the sewer improvements. In most cases, though, installing sewer systems is prohibitively expensive for either property owners or the county. So officials are encouraging residents to switch to more advanced septic systems, which can help decrease the amount of nitrogen that gets into the ground and, eventually, into local rivers and Long Island Sound. Qualifying residents are being offered $11,000 grants to install the upgraded systems, plus low-interest loans to cover the rest of the cost. About 100 residents have already installed the new systems. 

Bellone says county residents have started recognizing the need for such measures. “The problem with septic systems,” he says, “is that they’re underground. The saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is apt here. When people buy their houses they know how old the boiler is, how old the roof is. They don’t know how old their septic system is or how it’s working. But we’re really starting to see the results of septic systems: closed beaches, red tide, brown tide, fish kills.”

 

In Alabama, Flowers’ advocacy has brought a lot of attention to the situation in Lowndes County. The Alabama Department of Public Health is applying for federal grants to install septic systems for 100 residents in unincorporated areas on a first-come, first-served basis. Residents would pay a one-time fee of $500 or $1,000, depending on the type of septic system installed, plus a monthly fee of $20. 

Meanwhile, Flowers and others have been looking for new technology that could replace septic systems with an easier, cheaper way to deal with the persistent problem. Flowers has been talking with Kartik Chandran, an environmental engineering professor at Columbia University whose work focuses on how to use human waste and other wastewater to generate energy and produce agricultural fertilizers. 

Flowers is also turning up the heat on the state and federal governments. She joined with Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, to file a civil rights complaint against both the Lowndes County Health Department and the Alabama Department of Public Health. The complaint alleges that the government discriminated against the county’s black community when it failed to “abate known insanitary conditions, dismissed a credible outbreak of hookworm and failed to maintain sufficient data regarding the lack of wastewater services, despite knowledge of prior discriminatory acts regarding the high rate of insufficient onsite wastewater systems in the county.” The complaint is now before the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which will determine whether to pursue an investigation of its own. 

Anna Sewell, a water project attorney for Earthjustice, says state and county agencies could start to address the group’s concerns by informing residents about the evidence of hookworm infection and how to treat it; by helping families apply for state and federal loans to replace their septic systems; and by conducting a comprehensive survey to determine the extent of the sewage problem in Lowndes County. “The bottom line,” she says, “is that agencies have to clean up raw sewage on the ground.”

Flowers is keeping her eye on the national picture, even as she hopes to deal with the local crisis. If Lowndes County can take care of the problem, she says, people in other communities might be able to learn from them. “It’s not just a regional issue. These crises are happening across the U.S.,” she says, “but nobody has investigated it.”

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