“I’m tired,” Haineville resident Charlie May Holcomb said.
I sat in a crowded town hall on Tuesday, surrounded by other residents of Lowndes County, black belt mayors and the leadership of the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of Agriculture and the White House.
They were there to discuss the county’s lack of sewage infrastructure, and how PVC pipes are badly needed for proper plumbing and sewage ponds in people’s backyards.
Holcomb has lived in her home for decades, and she said she has been battling the sewage problem in Lowndes since 1987. Even with millions of dollars in federal and state funding directed to the area’s sewage infrastructure during that time, she said little has changed.
“However, nothing has been done for my problem. I’m dealing with it, and I’m just praying that something will come out of this,” Holcomb said.
Previous coverage:The invisible public health crisis in the southern countryside
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Leaders in President Joe Biden’s administration say this time is different.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Reagan, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu traveled to Lowndes this week to announce the Bridging America’s Wastewater Access Gap Community Initiative. It’s a pilot program that will operate in 11 communities across the country to secure federal funding and create adequate wastewater infrastructure such as indoor plumbing and sewer systems.
“A lot of people have waited a long time for the government to actually act,” Vilsack said at a meeting on Tuesday. “I will physically return to Washington, but I will stay here mentally. We have to rebuild trust in the government.”
In addition to Lowndes County, the initiative will also be launched in Greene County, Alabama, and other areas in Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, Kentucky, West Virginia and Arizona.
The USDA and EPA plan to help these communities take advantage of the $11.7 billion in bipartisan Infrastructure Act loans and grants available for wastewater projects.
An estimated 2.2 million people in the United States lack basic running water and indoor plumbing, according to the USDA, and these deficiencies put their health at risk.
In Lowndes County, doctors and researchers have detected a rise in poverty-related tropical diseases such as hookworm and toxoplasmosis over the past decade.
previously:The Black Belt Sanitation Program launches a new element in its solution to the sanitation crisis
Dive deeper:Wastewater infrastructure in rural Alabama a “public health issue” gets much-needed attention
Environmental activist Catherine Coleman Flowers brought researchers to the area in 2013 for a peer-reviewed study to assess whether residents had contracted a parasitic infection from raw sewage. In a sample of 55 adults, they found that about 35% of tests tested positive for hookworms — although the Alabama Department of Public Health disputed the study.
Flowers grew up in Lowndes and began advocating for her community about two decades ago. Now a member of Biden’s inaugural Environmental Justice Advisory Board, she attended USDA and EPA events this week.
“We are nearing the end of a nightmare that we have been dealing with for a very, very long time as it relates to sanitation,” Flowers said. “When I started doing this work, people didn’t even acknowledge there was a health problem in the States. They thought this was somewhere else.”
While Flowers was speaking to reporters behind the home of Aquila Grant, a Hayneville resident, she looked at a pool of raw sewage. Without access to municipal sewage or a working septic tank, “straight pipes” give sewage from her home using plastic pipes.
Nonprofit organizations such as the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program led the solutions campaign last year, and have already begun installing sewage systems for homes in need. But with more government support, residents hope that solutions will become more efficient and widespread.
“Just to see this fixed, I’d appreciate it,” Grant said.
Other Lowndes residents have raised concerns about how long it will take to access federal funding, how the money will reach homes that need it, and whether local governments have the support to enact solutions efficiently.
However, everyone agreed on one basic truth: Americans shouldn’t be dealing with raw sewage in their yards.
Hadley Heatson covers the rural South for The Montgomery Advertiser and Report for America. She can be reached at [email protected] To support her work, subscribe to the advertiser or donate to Report for America.