$2.1 million USDA grant returns to Lowndes County to solve the sewage crisis

·3 min read
Sherry Bradley of Alabama Department of Health and Perman Hardy talk during a public town hall for the community plumbing challenge at the Lowndes County Courthouse in Hayneville, Ala., on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.
Sherry Bradley of Alabama Department of Health and Perman Hardy talk during a public town hall for the community plumbing challenge at the Lowndes County Courthouse in Hayneville, Ala., on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will fund the installation of dozens of new, working sewage disposal systems in Lowndes County with a $2.1 million grant to the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program.

Almost exactly a year ago, local advocates Perman Hardy and Sherry Bradley were celebrating a very similar announcement. They’ve been working together to solve the county’s chronic waste problem since 2018, and at that time, the women were working through the Lowndes County Unincorporated Wastewater Program Sewer Board.

In June of 2021, the USDA awarded their group this same $2.1 million grant for this same project of installing in-ground wastewater treatment solutions in eligible homes. However, just a month later, they had to return the grant.

Disagreements between Hardy and Bradley with county leadership put an end to the program altogether. Still, the women persisted in finding a solution to the community’s struggle.

More: No working septic tank in Lowndes County? Here's how to apply for help

They started a new nonprofit, the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program, and began installing systems with the support of other institutions, including the governor’s office, the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

Now, they have installed 35 systems, and with the return of USDA funding, the women have a goal of 175.

New septic systems at homes in Lowndes County, Ala., on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.
New septic systems at homes in Lowndes County, Ala., on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.

“That’s the limit with the current funding,” Bradley said.

She serves as the treasurer and environmental adviser for the program, and separately, she has worked at the Alabama Department of Public Health for the last 44 years. For over 20 years of that time, Bradley has heard angry complaints about raw sewage on the ground in Lowndes.

“Every few years the story has gotten worse and worse,” she said. “What made a difference for me is when this guy from New York came down, and he said Lowndes County was worse than a third world country. Well, that did it. Those were fighting words.”

Sick of hearing about the problems, Bradley recruited Hardy and made the plan for resolution.

A sewage pipe feed into a new septic system at a home in Lowndes County, Ala., on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.
A sewage pipe feed into a new septic system at a home in Lowndes County, Ala., on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.

Even with progress made, though, experts on Lowndes’s sewage crisis such as Bradley say “there’s no telling” how many people in rural areas still don’t have access to adequate sewage disposal. For decades, residents have resorted to “straight-piping” their waste — using PVC pipes to funnel raw sewage out of their homes and into their backyards. That’s how many low-income households in the Black Belt dispose of their sewage still today.

More: In Lowndes County, 80% of homes lack reliable sewage systems. These women got tired of waiting.

A public town hall for the community plumbing challenge at the Lowndes County Courthouse in Hayneville, Ala., on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.
A public town hall for the community plumbing challenge at the Lowndes County Courthouse in Hayneville, Ala., on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

At a kickoff event with representatives from the USDA and Gov. Kay Ivey’s office on Thursday, Bradley recounted some of the situations she has seen firsthand.

One woman was inadvertently funneling her gray water — the water she used for her dishwasher and washing machine —  into the water well behind her house.

“It was probably making someone sick,” Bradley said.

Instances like this are not uncommon in the area.

Hardy herself experienced backed up sewage into her home for years caused by her inadequate septic tank.

“I had been talking about the raw sewage out here in Lowndes for over 25 years,” she said. “But I was fed misinformation for over 21 years, and I'm saying what was told to me, I never witnessed anybody went to jail for raw sewage. But I was told people went to jail.”

Misinformation surrounding the sewage crisis has been a common theme in Lowndes. Residents hear some rumors that they will be sent to jail for using straight-pipes or others saying that Hardy’s nonprofit will take over their land if they get a new system installed. Neither is true.

“I've been to people's houses that had straight pipes. I've seen children running around out there. But yet, when we have people that are fighting against projects, it’s extremely discouraging,” Lowndes County District Judge Adrian Johnson said.

Nonetheless, many of the county residents are supportive of the project, and the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program continues to install new systems, one by one.

Hadley Hitson covers the rural South for the Montgomery Advertiser and Report for America. She can be reached at hhitson@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: USDA funds project solving Lowndes County's sewage crisis