Septic tank prosecutions stir anger in one of nation's poorest counties

Posted 9:53AM on Monday 13th May 2002 ( 15 years ago )
HAYNEVILLE - In a rural Alabama county that is one of the poorest in the nation, hundreds of residents are gathering in old wooden churches off dirt roads to fight a government crackdown on homeowners who don&#39;t have septic tanks. <br> <br> Called by friends, neighbors, relatives and radio stations, angry residents are traveling weekly to share their stories and join in a movement to find a solution to the problem that doesn&#39;t involve putting people in jail. <br> <br> &#34;These people are being criminalized because they&#39;re poor,&#34; said Bob Mants, a leader in the effort to get help to Lowndes County and a veteran of the voting rights demonstrations of 1965. &#34;We are prepared to fill up the jails in Lowndes County. I hope it doesn&#39;t come to that.&#34; <br> <br> The center of the fight is Lowndes County, where many residents improperly run their raw sewage through pipes into fields or dump it in the woods. <br> <br> Since most of the rural county doesn&#39;t have municipal sewer systems, residents must install septic tanks, which are buried underground and contain waste that flows from homes. <br> <br> But many residents in the impoverished county cannot afford the systems, which often cost between $6,000 and $12,000. <br> <br> Thirty-seven families have been notified by the courts that they need to install waste-removal systems or face jail. So far, more than a dozen people have been arrested and fined. At least 1,200 more lack septic tanks needed for waste disposal -- and about 1,500 other families have septic systems that are beginning to fail. <br> <br> Health officials say the crackdown is unfortunate but necessary because of the threat of disease such as diphtheria and cholera from improperly disposed waste. <br> <br> Another factor in preventing homeowners from installing septic tanks is geography. Lowndes County is in the Black Belt, an Alabama region that was named by educator and ex-slave Booker T. Washington because its dark soil was ideal for growing cotton. <br> <br> But the rich soil, which grows strong crops, drives up the cost of septic tank systems because it doesn&#39;t absorb water very well, said Jim Hairston, a soil conservation professor at Auburn University. <br> <br> Clay in the ground can make wastewater drainage nearly impossible, so field lines need to be extended to distribute it over a larger amount of land. <br> <br> Often, tons of dirt must be hauled from more than 30 miles away at a cost of $3,000 or $4,000. More money must be spent for a surveyor to evaluate the soil, and if it&#39;s unsuitable for an underground septic system, a professional engineer has to design a specialized system, said Pres Allinder, director of environmental services for the state health department. <br> <br> &#34;These folks are hit with a double whammy,&#34; Allinder said. &#34;Not only do they not have a lot of money to start with, but they have the most difficult systems.&#34; <br> <br> &#34;I don&#39;t have any running water, I have high power bills, I don&#39;t have a septic tank,&#34; said Linda Thompson in a brief testimonial at the First Baptist Church of Hayneville. &#34;I have four kids and it&#39;s hard.&#34; <br> <br> The potential for disease puts health officials in a bind, said Ron Pugh, the health department officer who oversees sewage and septic tanks. Under state law, health officials must send a legal notice to a residence if there has been a complaint about waste flowing freely on the property. <br> <br> Pugh said he turns to the district attorney for an arrest warrant if a septic tank hasn&#39;t been installed within a few months. <br> <br> A few families have benefitted from charitable contributions, but not enough to put a dent in the larger predicament. <br> <br> &#34;If you arrest people, they still won&#39;t have septic tanks, and they will still have health problems,&#34; said Catherine Flowers, economic development coordinator for Lowndes County and organizer for the movement. &#34;We&#39;re not going to allow any families to suffer any hardship or lose any homes under our watch.&#34; <br> <br>

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