Landmark Case Spotlights US Rural Sanitation Problem

Nov 7, 2023
 by Seven Seas News Team

Catherine Coleman Flowers, who grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, was named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow for her work in calling attention to the rural sanitation crisis in the U.S.

To mark World Toilet Day, we honor a tireless activist whose work on the rural sanitation crisis in the US led to lawsuit

If you’ve never heard of World Toilet Day, you might be inclined to think of it as a joke, but that’s far from the truth. The annual event calls attention to serious shortcomings in sanitation practices around the world. For instance, did you know that 3.5 billion people around the world are living without safe toilets?

To mark the occasion, Seven Seas Water Group is spotlighting the recent success of a landmark environmental justice case springing from Lowndes County, Alabama, a victory that could establish sanitation as a civil right and end the rural sanitation crisis in the United States.

In the county, sewage often backs up into yards, bathrooms, waterways, and groundwater because the cost of septic systems — and maintaining them — is out of reach for many homeowners. Many residents have kept silent about the issue and were without a voice before activist Catherine Coleman Flowers came along.

Flowers learned firsthand about America’s rural sanitation crisis while growing up in Lowndes County. And now, as a Macarthur fellow and author, she champions environmental justice for rural America.

A Columbia University study she authored in 2019 exposed a hidden hookworm epidemic, awakened the nation to the sanitation crisis, and ultimately paved the way for the recent case, which has ramifications far beyond Lowndes County. Flowers said:

I think Lowndes County was just the canary in the coal mine. I think that rural communities across the U.S. are suffering from the same problem. People just didn’t talk about it.

Obstacles to Adequate Sanitation

Many barriers stand in the way of adequate rural sanitation. Centralized municipal sewage systems are often too far away, and small communities may not have a high enough population to support a traditional wastewater facility of their own.

Property owners are, therefore, legally required to have residential septic systems that many cannot afford. Adding to the problem, in some spots, dense clay soils make their construction an almost insurmountable challenge. Owners often have little choice but to “straight pipe” sewage into their yards or pastures, hoping to escape notice. Failure to maintain a compliant system, however, can lead to costly citations, court dates, and even imprisonment.

Agencies Join Forces Toward a Solution

In response, several groups, including Flowers’ Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, filed complaints under the Civil Rights Act alleging discrimination against predominantly black Lowndes County for the way the state distributes infrastructure funds.

The Justice Department and the Alabama Department of Public Health subsequently came to a voluntary interim agreement to connect homeowners with resources to help them make repairs rather than punitively citing them for non-compliant systems. This federal involvement will free up American Rescue Plan resources.

In August, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, and White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu visited Lowndes County, where they announced a plan for the county and 10 more areas in sanitation crisis across the nation. The federal government is to provide expertise to:

  • Study the technical and financial barriers to treating municipal wastewater.
  • Create a comprehensive plan to fund a solution, using money from the 2022 Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, which places special emphasis on underserved communities.
  • Maintain dialogue with state and county officials and other stakeholders to ensure follow-through.

According to Mayor Delmartre Bethel of White Hall, a town in Lowndes County:

A public sewer system is attractive. If we have something for them to hook up to or be able to offer them, like I said, it would attract more people in. But right now, we don’t have it.

But how do areas with little access to capital get the infrastructure they need?

Treatment Plant Leasing Options and WaaS® Can Help

Seven Seas maintains a fleet of modular wastewater treatment units that are ideal to truck in and install as decentralized plants, a workable solution for rural areas that are far from centralized plants.

Although Seven Seas offers traditional agreements, we offer other flexible options that limit or even eliminate capital outlay. Flexible, variable-term leases offer unprecedented flexibility for getting through cash flow bottlenecks. Everything inside the fence can be leased, and all leases retain a purchase option.

Our Water-as-a-Service® (WaaS®)  model leverages public-private partnership, build-own-operate (BOO), and build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) agreements that deliver infrastructure and keep the water experts in charge of operations and maintenance over the long haul. Clients offload risk and only need to pay for the water services they use at an agreed price and quality.

Seven Seas secures the financing in-house through the power of Morgan Stanley Infrastructure Partners, and the experts go to work designing and building a decentralized plant tailored to the service area.

Contact Seven Seas. We are here to help navigate public-private partnership legal frameworks and government funding, and we’re here with alternatives for communities that fall through the cracks.

Image Credit: © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation-used with permission