WITH SUPPORT FROM LIXIL, FUJI CLEAN USA, NUMEROUS UA LOCALS, VOLUNTEERS, AND COUNTY/STATE ORGANIZATIONS, LOWNDES COUNTY RESIDENTS GOT RELIEF FROM A SANITATION NIGHTMARE
When it rains in Lowndes County, Alabama, Perman Hardy’s heart sinks.
That’s because she knows she’s going to have a devastating problem nobody wants in their home: an overflowing sewer system.
“Several times I left home and when I came back, sewage was everywhere,” Hardy said. “I got small children and we couldn’t even stay in the house until I got it cleaned up.”
The issue of having basic safe sanitation has vexed Hardy and other residents for decades. In this 17-county, underserved region known as the “Blackbelt” for its nonpermeable, clay-like Black Prairie soil, many citizens can’t afford proper sewage disposal systems, resorting to using “straight piping” systems that typically release sewage above the ground.
When it rains, the hard-packed soil can’t absorb the additional water and that means raw, untreated sewage can often seep into residents’ yards or gardens, or even back up into the house — causing an unsanitary mess.
According to the Blackbelt Unincorporated Wastewater Program (BBUWP), a nonprofit organization coordinating solutions to the problem, as many as three-fourths of rural homes in this area have poorly working wastewater systems.
Hardy’s neighbor, Culexie Gordon, has also experienced the same issue, especially when rain is heavy. “(Sometimes) it’s coming back up through the bathtub. It could come back up the toilet,” Gordon said. “I’ve been having this problem for 20 years.”
But not anymore. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the International Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Foundation (IWSH), the philanthropic arm of the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO®); plumbing manufacturer LIXIL; the Alabama Department of Public Health; BBUWP; and a decentralized waste- water solution by Fuji Clean USA, this long-standing sewage problem is finally being addressed.
When leaders from the participating groups first gathered in Lowndes County in 2021 to assess the situation, they were shocked by the magnitude of the problem. “We watched the (water from) the straight pipe go directly onto the garden, again and again from the toilet flushing,” said Seán Kearney, IWSH managing director. “Right where we were standing, a big pool of water building up on the ground and going nowhere.”
A plumber who volunteered to install the systems, John Dillard of Birmingham, Alabama, Local 91, said: “Man, to see situations like this in my home state, it (feels) like we’re backing up instead of moving forward.”
An early test case from June 2021 at Hardy’s home indicated that the Fuji Clean USA system supported by high- efficiency fixtures that reduce the amount of wastewater would work to solve the issue for some of the residents. This was good news since the issue extends beyond Alabama’s borders. Not only do 2.2 million Americans suffer from inadequate water and wastewater systems, but the release of untreated sewage into the ground and waterways yields a significant environmental impact, too, as well as higher federal health-care costs to treat individuals sickened by unsafe water.
The shocking magnitude of the problem prompted LIXIL’s involvement, said Troy Benavidez, leader of Government Relations and Policy for LIXIL.
“Our company has been in business for 150 years, and we’ve been solving sanitation problems around the world in under- developed countries,” he said. “So, when we have a problem like this, right in our backyard in the United States, we had to figure out how to do something about it.”
While the collective is securing funding to pay licensed plumbers to complete the installations in Alabama, the initial five systems were completed by volunteers solicited through the IWSH Community Plumbing Challenge™ (CPC) program.
One of them was Michael Lavoie, a third- generation plumber who made the long trek from his home in California to participate in the March installations. “The root and the spirit of our trade are being of service,” Lavoie said. “So, to be here and actually help out with the Alabama pipe trades and unions, I couldn’t be more grateful to be involved.”
LIXIL’s Benavidez was impressed by CPC participants like Lavoie, who donated their time and talent to this effort.
“It’s not just installing a toilet or a faucet. It’s giving someone access to clean, safe drinking water and proper sanitation,” he said. “Plumbers are giving people hope and access to clean water. They’re my heroes.”
This philanthropic, public/private initiative has only just begun; another 170 homes in this section of Alabama’s rural, poverty-stricken region have been slated for similar sewage system repairs over the next two years.
Beside the remediation efforts, the group is working to prevent water sanitation problems from occurring in Lowndes County in the future, too. Working with state and local officials, BBUWP has been able to strengthen local building codes to prevent additional straight pipe installations.
“We introduced an ordinance for the county to say that you must hook on to a water system or a septic tank system,” said Sherry Bradley, director of the Alabama Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Environmental Services. “That requirement was not even on the books. But now it’s law.”
All participants agree that by bringing the right people together, amazing results can occur. According to Benavidez, “We demonstrated that this problem can be solved if you pull the right people together.”
Hardy, one of the residents benefitting from the group’s efforts, sees this as a turning point for her struggling community. “This can make it a better place. When our children go off to college, they’ll come back to Lowndes County. And invest in Lowndes County.”
Nora DePalma is the CEO of Dialogue, a modern PR agency that builds value for brands and ideas changing where and how we live. The PR firm for brands on a mission, Dialogue clients are purpose-led organizations in the design and construction sector, climate advocacy and sustainable lifestyle brands.
Last modified: August 12, 2022