ADPH to assess barriers to proper wastewater disposal
Published 1:29 pm Monday, July 17, 2023
On July 5, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) announced plans to contract with the University of Alabama (UA) to explore better, safer ways to dispose of wastewater in Lowndes County. The partnership will allow the agency to coordinate home visits to identify people living in the county who do not have a working septic system and ask questions about barriers to having a proper septic system installed.
According to Ron Dawsey, director for the ADPH Bureau of Environmental Services, the visits will not include homes served by municipal sewer systems, only those that rely on septic systems for sewage disposal.
“We will ask [homeowners] questions to determine what the problem is,” Dawsey said. “Then we can ask the contractor to put them on the list to check.”
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The planned assessments are part of the agency’s May 4 Interim Resolution Agreement with the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and are a result of a civil rights investigation of the sanitation programs of the ADPH. The agency willingly entered into the agreement to take immediate action on the raw sewage exposure issues across Lowndes County.
In a June media release, the agency noted traditional septic systems are not designed or installed to work in the black belt soil of the county, a soil which does not properly drain wastewater away from homes. Septic tanks specially designed to work in black belt soil can be costly or can stop working due to drainage problems. In addition, residents who rely on straight pipes or septic systems that do not work properly can become sick from exposure to raw sewage.
The ADPH bears the responsibility for reviewing applications and designs of septic systems to ensure they will work in the county’s soil. The agency is also responsible for handling public health threats, such as exposure to raw sewage.
Home visits are just the first phase in the agency’s plan of action to address wastewater disposal problems. On the agency’s website, www.alabamapulbichealth.gov/environmental/septic-system-program.html, Lowndes County residents can view recent publications, receive education about the health risks of raw sewage exposure, and submit their information for scheduling a home visit.
According to Dawsey, homeowners will not be asked whether they already attempted to connect with any group for repairs. Even if a resident has contacted another group for assessment, repairs, or septic information, inspectors will gather information for followup.
“We don’t ask them if they have already contacted somebody else about doing repairs,” Dawsey said. “We will provide their information to our contractor and let them follow up on the situation.”
Once the agency has contracted with UA, personnel can begin coordinating visits. No date has been set, but Dawsey expects assessment to begin early this fall.
Home visits will allow ADPH to determine existing needs and the barriers to meeting those needs, Dawsey explained. Once information is gathered, the agency can develop plans for next solutions for homeowners still battling with improper sewage disposal.
The ADPH agreement with DOJ outlines the agency’s commitment to protect Black and low-income residents of Lowndes County, particularly those who cannot pay to install a properly functioning septic system, cannot afford to fix an existing system, are not served by a municipal sanitation system, or are concerned they will be fined, face jail time, lose their property, or have their personal information shared.
As part of the commitment, the agency has affirmed its desire to help residents improve their quality of life by stopping raw sewage from remaining on the ground or backing up into homes. In addition, ADPH will no longer report residents for not having a working septic system if the residents provide information about their method of wastewater disposal and/or apply under any program run by ADOH to receive a system approved by ADPH which is designed to function with the soil at the property so that sewage discharge is kept to the homeowner’s property and not allowed to drain onto other people’s property.
The agency has committed not to cause residents to be fined by a judge or to face jail time because they use straightpipe disposal methods or rely on a septic system which does not work properly. ADPH has confirmed residents will not lose property because they cannot afford to install a properly working septic system.
The ADPH requests Lowndes County residents with straight pipes or with septic tanks not working properly to visit its website or call (334) 206-5373 for information on getting a septic system designed, installed, or repaired.