MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — How much untreated sewage gets dumped in Alabama's Black Belt?
That's the question a team of students and professors at the University of Alabama is trying to determine.
In many parts of the Black Belt, homeowners are resorting to "straight pipe" systems to dispose of wastewater and sewage, rather than sewers or septic tanks because of a type of thick, clay soil and widespread poverty across isolated areas.
In those instances, untreated wastewater and sewage are simply flushed out of a plain PVC pipe from the house into the woods, or even the backyard, raising concerns about tropical diseases like hookworm and other public health issues.
Al.com reports University of Alabama graduate students and professors, backed by a federal grant, are joining efforts to determine just how widespread these practices are and what can be done about them.
The UA team received a $15,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "People, Prosperity and the Planet," program, a competition for students proposing a yearlong project to address an environmental or public health issue.
The students will use computer models to map how widespread sanitation issues are in Alabama's Black Belt, a region plagued with sewage and wastewater problems and reports of tropical diseases like hookworm that are associated with poor sanitation. The student project will go hand-in-hand with efforts by university researchers and state and federal agencies.
University of Alabama civil engineering professor Mark Elliott, a faculty adviser for the project, said the Black Belt is being hampered by a combination of poor soil conditions where traditional septic systems don't work, high levels of poverty, and people living in relatively isolated areas where connecting to municipal sewer lines is not an option.
Elliott said the "shrink-swell clays" that make up about half the soil in the Black Belt don't allow water to flow through, and make most septic systems "almost impossible to use."
"So in that situation, understandably, many people, especially poor people, have decided not to waste their money on a system that they know is going to fail," Elliott said.
One survey conducted by UA and the Alabama Department of Public Health found that 60 percent of homes surveyed in Wilcox County that weren't connected to municipal sewer lines had a visible straight pipe.
Though disposing of waste through a straight pipe is illegal, most of the people who resort to such methods cannot afford to install a septic system, and in large areas in the Black Belt, most septic systems would not work anyway. The Alabama Department of Public Health has decreased emphasis on fining offenders and instead is focused on finding workable solutions.
In recent months, political figures including Cory Booker, Al Gore and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have attempted to draw attention to the area's struggles, but it's still not clear just how widespread those problems are.
"There's been publicity around this issue, particularly in Lowndes County, for a long time but the scope of the problem was never really defined," Elliott said. "It was presented as a series of anecdotes, and that made it hard to define how much it would cost to fix the problem and what solutions would be appropriate."
The students, led by UA graduate student Aaron Blackwell, plan to construct a computer model to estimate how likely a home is to have a straight pipe, based on factors such as soil conditions, existing infrastructure, population density and property values. The students will apply their model to five of the 17 counties traditionally included in Alabama's Black Belt: Lowndes, Wilcox, Perry, Dallas and Hale Counties.
UA's team is in the first phase of the program, and will attend the TechConnect World Innovation Conference and Expo in Boston in June to showcase its research. The team can then apply for a second-phase grant for funding up to $100,000 to further the project design.
Other members of the team include Joseph Weber, UA professor of geological sciences, Sagy Cohen, UA associate professor of geological sciences, and Rebecca Greenberg, a UA graduate student studying geology.
The students' project will be part of a larger collaborative effort involving a group of state and federal health and environmental agencies, universities and elected officials to find solutions to the problems. That group, dubbed the Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater Management Consortium, continues to meet to discuss which potential solutions might work best and how to pay for those solutions.
Elliott said one idea that is frequently discussed among the group is identifying clusters of houses that could be grouped together to use smaller-scale treatment systems that that would be more effective than a typical septic system but less expensive than expanding municipal sewer lines to remote areas.