The rich topsoil of Lowndes County, Alabama, was an asset in the country’s earliest decades, particularly to White landowners. Slave labor cultivated cash crops and built fortunes. An entire swath of the Southeast became known as the Black Belt for the land’s fertile hue.
Today that soil is an environmental liability, and one borne by the area’s disproportionately poor and mostly Black residents. The earth is too dense and moist for conventional septic tanks. Specialized treatment systems necessary for proper sanitation are expensive. Raw sewage pools in people’s yards and seeps into gardens.
For Perman Hardy, problems caused by the soil have been the focus of a decadeslong push for better wastewater management in Lowndes County. Local officials told her again and again that the available solutions were too expensive. She was already well into organizing for the 2020 election, knocking on doors and pressing people to register to vote, when Joe Biden’s presidential campaign released a plan in July calling for $2.2 trillion in spending to mitigate climate change, 40% of which would go to communities on the front lines of climate change. That kind of money would go a long way in a place like Lowndes County.
“I work hard every election cycle,” she said, “but somehow this election was one of life or death.”
The failure of basic wastewater infrastructure that has shaped Hardy’s political life is particularly dramatic, but not uncommon in the U.S. “There are thousands of communities like Lowndes,” said Jesse Keenan, a professor of real estate at Tulane University.
Climate change is only exacerbating these inequalities. Rising heat and more intense flooding are increasing the stress on all sorts of aging American infrastructure, from storm water runoff systems and levees to power plants and transmission lines. Recent research into housing discrimination and extreme heat found that so-called red-lined areas — communities considered off-limits by mortgage lenders, which are overwhelmingly settled by people of color — are about 2.6 degrees Celsius hotter than average city temperatures.
Lower investment overall correlates with lower public investment in heat-mitigating infrastructure such as parks and street trees, according to the team of researchers from universities and scientific institutions in Virginia and Oregon. Temperature variations in Southern and Western cities were most stark, the researchers found, with differentials in certain places as great as 7 degrees Celsius.
The sheer scale of investment needed for climate change mitigation presents its own challenges, since measuring relative disadvantage and historic pollution impacts is far from straightforward. Communities that have suffered from nearby oil refineries will be competing with affordable housing projects in flood-prone areas for environmental mitigation funding. “How in the world are they going to come up with a new classification system?” Keenan said. “Who should be prioritized?”
Even with both the White House and Congress controlled by Democrats, there are significant obstacles standing between President Biden and the realization of his climate plan. Not all Democrats are as enthusiastic about addressing climate change as the president, and the party’s margins in the legislative branch are perilously thin. There will also be plenty of other competition for lawmakers’ attention, starting with the Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump and a new economic relief package.
Local siting and procurement rules could further complicate things. Many municipalities have laws demanding that new flooding infrastructure prioritize the most valuable properties, which can disproportionately benefit wealthier districts with Whiter populations. Most federal infrastructure grants also require local matching funds, usually raised through bond issues or property taxes. Even in a normal year this would put low-income communities in a tough spot. During COVID-19, which has drained local coffers, the challenge may be insurmountable.
“The overall decline of economic output is hitting local government hard,” Keenan said. “Most will barely be able to keep up with basic services.” Programs to improve infrastructure and mitigate climate change are considered “luxury items,” he added, and as such may be pushed outside the realm of possibility for a decade or more.
Those who’ve worked for years trying to improve conditions in Lowndes are less concerned with the obstacles to federal funding than they are with what they would do with it. Sherry Bradley, director of the Alabama Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Environmental Services, received nearly $2.4 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year for a pilot program to engineer certified onsite sewage disposal systems that can work even in dense soil. Residents can apply to be take part for a one-time down payment of $500 to $1,000, depending on the type of soil they have, plus a $20 monthly maintenance fee.
Bradley had finished raising the required matching funds by the beginning of this year, but all that money combined is only enough to cover 100 homes, far fewer than the number that applied. The pandemic has delayed installations even for those people, but she is hoping that, once she has finished, local officials “will band together and do the same for the remaining residents that cannot afford these types of engineered designed systems.” That would mean applying for more federal grants, she said.
A sewer main would be an even more long-lasting solution for Lowndes County. But at a cost of as much as $1 million per mile, installing one is beyond the reach of most Black Belt communities, which also tend to be rural and widely spread out.
Mark Elliott, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alabama, is part of a team developing a hybrid septic-sewer system that would filter out solids and collect them in a tank while liquid waste is piped to a smaller treatment facility. This would allow the system to operate with smaller pipes, he said, costing communities much less to put in than a sewer main. But even this cheaper system would likely be too expensive for the state without additional funding.
“They’ve got one or two employees per county who deal with environment, with wastewater, and food safety combined, and people are expecting them to solve this problem,” Elliott said. “It’s ridiculous, frankly.”
People in communities with broken sewage systems tend to blame government officials for not just solving it, but sometimes the problem is not political will — it is money.
“What we’re hoping,” Elliott said, “is once we provide a proof of concept, that real money will be there to solve the problem.”
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