Fledgling Alabama Program Replaces Failed Onsite Systems

Manufacturers and volunteer tradespeople make a growing contribution to improve wastewater treatment in Black Belt region

Fledgling Alabama Program Replaces Failed Onsite Systems

 Representatives of SABIC, Inc., far left and right, present a $500,000 check to Lee Salter, of the state health department, and Perman Hardy, president of the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program. (Photo courtesy of BBUWP)

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Five years ago, I introduced you to a few determined folks in South Central Alabama who recognized an abundance of failed septic systems — or homes without septic systems at all, just a straight pipe that dumped waste in the backyard — and wanted to do something about it.

These concerned citizens teamed with the Alabama Onsite Wastewater Association to build a septic system for an elderly woman, Willie Mae Spivey of small town Tyler, located in a 17-county area known as the Black Belt because of the area’s dark, impermeable clay soils. The AOWA donates onsite systems to those in need every year, and this modest project was certainly a good-news story for our industry.

I’m excited to report the project to help Spivey has grown into something much bigger. It spawned a new nonprofit group, the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program, or BBUWP, which has installed more than 100 septic systems, recently formed a board of directors and secured a $500,000 gift from an area plastics manufacturer, SABIC, Inc. And $2.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds were made available last fall to residents of Fort Deposit, Alabama, in Lowndes County, to improve water and sewer services.

The organization recently trained eight high school students to perform audits of the plumbing systems for applicants for wastewater system improvements, with an ultimate goal of encouraging young people to enter the plumbing trades. For Sherry Bradley, a director, and Perman Hardy, the BBUWP president, the program has been a dream realized to help poor people in the region secure safe drinking water and wastewater treatment others across the country have always taken for granted.

A big problem

Hardy received a donated septic system right after Spivey, and it has made a huge difference in her life. Money was so tight that for many years, Hardy says she had to choose between pumping her failing system and providing for her grandchildren. All of her grandchildren suffered from asthma, which she attributed to the poor sanitation conditions they suffered under. And they were constantly dealing with the odors from waste surfacing in the yard.

“Once it started failing, I had to figure out a way to keep the sewage out of the house,” she says. “My grandchildren understood the sacrifice I had to make. I couldn’t buy Christmas presents for my grandchildren because I was putting my money into the septic system.”

Bradley, who has served as director of Alabama’s Bureau of Environmental Services for many years, was there from the start, advocating for Spivey, and then looking at ways to develop the program to where it is today. She feels for many residents of Lowndes County, part of the 17-county black belt, who have either rudimentary onsite systems that don’t work in these difficult soils, or simply have pipes that run to the back of their properties and dump waste on the ground.

One system at a time, things are improving, Bradley says. The BBUWP is buoyed by installer volunteers and manufacturers who donate onsite components to build new systems like Spivey’s and Hardy’s, which utilize technology from FujiClean USA and Infiltrator Water Technologies.

Recently, IWSH, International Water Sanitation Hygiene, the foundation arm of the International Association of Plumbers and Mechanical Officials, or IAPMO, has pledged to pitch in with the labor necessary to grow the program. And LIXIL, parent company of plumbing fixture manufacturer American Standard, pledged $100,000 in water-efficient products to help reduce flow in areas with problematic soils.

Good jobs

Then came the $500,000 gift from SABIC, located in Burkville, Alabama, which Bradley says will pay for the organization to set up an office and fund the training program for ongoing plumbing inspections at applicants’ homes. The program to train high school students and promote careers in the trades is especially gratifying for Bradley, who says plumbing skills could lead to good jobs for young people in this poor region.

“What we have is a generational problem if they grew up in a house with a straight pipe all their lives, they think that’s normal. But it’s not normal. We’ll show them different installations of onsite systems,” she says. The youths will learn about the well-paid tradespeople involved in the construction industry, from the plumbers to the electricians and equipment operators.

“It takes a lot of people to do the job right. They need to see that, and it may pique their interest and one day they will say, ‘I can do this.’ Young people — that’s going to be the lifeline of this thing. We want to spark their interest; they need to know if you do good work, you get paid,” she continues. “I’m all for taking the young people and working with them. It’s easy to bend a tree when it’s young. Maybe we’re looking at future home builders and plumbers.”

The folks at LIXIL heard about the program and knew part of the problem was ineffective sewage treatment in the ground, but also that part of the problem was inside the house with inefficient plumbing fixtures sending too much water into ground that doesn’t percolate. The black belt soils are notoriously bad when it comes to leaching wastewater, says Mike Webster, LIXIL senior project manager — new product development.

“We felt if we could reduce the amount of water going into the septic system, it would certainly make the situation better,” he explains. So the company is shipping fixtures and fittings to a warehouse in Alabama to handle ongoing demand when applicants are accepted by BBUWP. These include low-flow toilets, kitchen faucets and shower heads.

Promoting the trades

Knowing what materials are needed is the reason for the student inspectors. The young people are being trained to look for plumbing leaks, inefficient fixtures and other problems. Their reports will go to LIXIL, then the products will be put in the hands of volunteer plumbers for installation.

“It’s a wonderful idea to get more people involved at a younger age,” Webster says. “A lot of young people in the past have looked down on the trades and I think that’s a mistake. Lowndes County has had a lot of economic hardship. Anything that can give these people a chance to improve their lives is great.”

Hardy says she never thought she’d see the day when the issue of failing septic systems would be addressed. Few people in the region have the funds to pay for a new septic system, so it’s heartening to see manufacturers, installers and plumbers getting together to help this cause. She was especially bowled over by the SABIC donation and hopes there is ongoing support until every home has a proper wastewater system.

“I got so emotional, I thought I was going to pass out,” she says of receiving the SABIC gift. “This was a dream come true to expand a lot of things down there.”

Keep it going

The synergies realized in the BBUWP program are great on so many fronts, from helping the disadvantaged to training a new generation of wastewater workers. I hope the enthusiasm doesn’t begin and end in Alabama. The issues of inadequate rural wastewater treatment and a dwindling number of tradespeople are pervasive in many corners of North America.

I’m certain that no matter where you are while reading this column, you know of people who are struggling to pay for system repair or replacement. And I’m just as certain you are aware of the shortage of good installers. I’ll bet just about every company that receives a copy of Onsite Installer would be happy to hire the next good recruit who walks in the front door. 


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