University of Alabama and Partners Work to Solve Sewage Crisis in State’s Black Belt
December 16, 2020

​Until recently, state and local officials in Alabama ignored the systemic issues of waste management in rural Southern areas, which disproportionately impact Black communities. Traditional septic tanks do not function well in the state’s Black Belt, due to the rich but water-resistant topsoil common in the region. Other options, such as building sewer lines and treatment plants, remain prohibitively expensive.

The University of Alabama (UA) has partnered with the University of South Alabama, Auburn University, Columbia University in New York, the University of North Carolina and the University of California-Irvine to develop a new hybrid wastewater system to finally address this long-standing problem. The project aims to demonstrate that a clustered, decentralized wastewater treatment system can yield health, economic, and environmental benefits for rural communities.

“The majority of areas in the rural Black Belt of Alabama do not have adequate wastewater management and for most households, there is no feasible solution available,” said Mark Elliott, UA associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering. “We are confident that we have a solution that is affordable and sustainable for a majority of these households.”

Catherine Coleman Flowers, an environmental activist who was recently awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, grew up in Lowndes County, a rural area within the Alabama Black Belt. Her book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, released in November, showcases the environmental destruction of rural communities throughout the country due to a lack of effective waste management.

Through her years-long efforts to enact change for the waste management crisis plaguing her community, public health officials and universities decided to take action.

Columbia World Projects, a Columbia University initiative, works to fund university research to address urgent and difficult challenges. The organization has raised $710,000 so far to install a pilot site that would handle the sewage from about 150-180 homes in the rural town of Newbern, AL.

However, the goal of the university consortium’s work extends far beyond the Black Belt of Alabama. They hope that the five-year project will yield wastewater systems that many underserved, low-income communities in the United States and around the world can implement.

“We’re really hoping that once we’ve demonstrated proof of concept that these first systems will serve as a demonstration to others, and other counties and other towns will start to inquire about getting the resources to implement these solutions,” Elliott said in a recent interview with “And frankly, if Congresswoman Sewell on the House side, and Senator Shelby, on the Senate side, continue to be proactive in terms of trying to find solutions for these communities, I think that once proof of concept is established, there could be a lot of federal money flowing in that could solve this problem.”

At a Glance

Member Institution: The University of Alabama

Initiative: Transforming Wastewater Infrastructure in the United States

Goal: To develop a decentralized wastewater treatment system and yield health, economic, and environmental benefits for rural communities.

Other Links about Catherine Coleman Flowers' Work:

The Right to Flush and Forget
Bloomberg City Lab | Dec. 15, 2020

The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice

Center for Earth Ethics