Where septic tanks are unaffordable luxuries

An Alabama county requires that residents replace outdoor sewage with costly alternative, but poverty is an obstacle.

Once upon a time – say, 10 years ago – folks all over Alabama's Lowndes County lugged water from wells and powdered their noses in outdoor "closets."

Today, at least the drinking water trickles through pipes in the earth in one of the poorest corners of America. But instead of also making the switch to modern plumbing, some 1,200 families – half the population here – still use outhouses, while most run "field lines" straight from their bathrooms to the back lot.

In Alabama, as in all states, it's illegal to run sewage straight to the ground. And in all but the most remote parts of the country, outhouses, too, are forbidden. But to these and thousands of other Alabamians, it's an inexpensive solution to an age-old disposal problem. Lately, however, authorities are doing more than turning up their noses at a practice that's long been a fact of life in a bleak region where dirt lanes are crowded by cornfields and the odd roadside "disco."

Heeding a growing number of odor complaints, health officers have moved aggressively to force residents from Selma to Montgomery to upgrade their plumbing. Several people have already been arrested for faulty piping.

This week, state officials agreed to temporarily halt 37 prosecutions until a survey of 5,000 homes could be completed. But as the pressure mounts to resolve a public-health matter, residents here say that government spending has ensured good sewers in wealthier, more-populated areas, but that a handful of remote counties in the depths of Dixie have been forgotten. Impoverished conditions in one of the poorest areas of America, are complicating a central issue here: Who's going to pay to plumb?

"It's so hard for somebody from Boston or Birmingham to imagine people who don't have water, don't have phones, live without electricity, and dump raw sewage onto their own yard," says Arlene Richardson, a Hayneville lawyer. "After learning how widespread the problem is in these really poor counties, my conclusion is that Alabama is a third-world country, and we're not getting any government assistance."

Mentioning that they have pictures of kids walking past streams of sewage, officials say they are keen to avert any potential future epidemics of hepatitis or even cholera. But challenges remain in updating sewage-disposal systems.

One problem is that there's no county-wide system requiring a permit to put a home on a lot. A result has been that people are discreetly setting up new trailers with lines running into the woods, often in neighborhoods that are densely populated.

What's more, the regional waterworks completed a decade ago may, in fact, have worsened the problem – it increased not just the inflow of water, but the outflow of affluent. The installation of water also encouraged people to abandon their outhouses, which tend to be less of a health hazard than running a line out into the pasture.

The ground here also presents a problem when installing septic tanks, which need to run off into a leach field. First termed "the Black Belt" by Booker T. Washington, in reference to its dark, cotton-friendly "prairie soil," the region's namesake soil becomes slick and muddy when wet – and cracks when dry. In all, it's about as permeable as stone.

To solve the problem, residents have to ship in looser soil to build raised "drain beds" – at great expense. A system here can cost $6,000 to install; a similar system in more amenable soil runs closer to $2,000.

"This is a black county," says Willie Sims, a clerk at Mr. Wee's store in Rudolph, Ala.. "But even the few whites who live here are affected by this. They can't afford the tanks either."

Lowndes County is a place where nothing but a single GM plant ever really replaced "King Cotton," and where goats and chickens strut and mutter around trailers and tiny grocery stores. It was primarily through this county that civil-rights activists trudged in their 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Poverty has remained endemic here for decades. Some subsistence farming goes on, while many people commute to low-paying jobs in Montgomery.

With these difficulties in mind, some are angry that health officials have started arresting people instead of helping them.

"There's only one jail house in this county, and there's no way it could hold everybody who's guilty of not having a septic tank," says Eugene, a convenience-store clerk.

Congregating in wooden churches and city halls from Selma to White Hall to protest the state crackdown, many have rallied together in protest. As a result, the state has softened its stance. Still, officials have made no commitments to help pay for an emergency plan that is being drawn up to provide temporary tanks for families in the worst conditions.

"They're trying to make everybody have a septic tank, but everybody can't afford it," says Carrie Lee Perdue, a grandmother whose house has a line that runs several hundred feet out into the pasture behind a small cul-de-sac of trailers.

People here say that outhouses are only natural, and can safely be dug out and maintained. "Field lines," meanwhile, can help fertilize the soil, they argue. Septic tanks, on the other hand, can easily back up or overflow back into the house.

"Carrying water in buckets and going to the outhouse is what people here always did, and often still do," says Ms. Sims.

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