City of Alabama Black Belt awarded $10 million to save broken sewer system

A small community in Alabama’s Black Belt is being awarded $10 million to fix a malfunctioning sewer system that residents say has been holding the city back for decades.

State and federal officials traveled to the small town of Hayneville, in Lowndes County, on Friday to officially sign papers earmarking $10 million for the repair and upgrade of the city’s sewage system.

Hayneville Mayor Jimmy Davis said the city wouldn’t have the money to “even think about a project like this” without federal support.

“This money means everything to our city,” Davis said. “I am very happy for our residents, who previously had to do without an adequate sewage system, but who will soon get the sewage system they deserve.”

Lance LeFleur, director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, said the funding will improve the lives of residents, many of whom live in locations where traditional septic tank systems don’t work because of the soil.

“This is the highlight of my year so far and probably the highlight of the past several years,” LeFleur said. “We are delighted that this is happening and it means so much to the people of the Hayneville area.

“They’re getting rid of a problem they’ve had for generations.”

In Alabama’s Black Belt, the combination of thick clay soils, sparse population and high poverty makes sanitation problems a long-standing and costly problem. Most septic tank systems do not function properly in poorly draining soils such as the Black Belt, and many residents live miles from the nearest central sewer line.

As a result, many residents have been stuck with septic systems that are working ineffectively or not at all, and some have resorted to “straight piping” or dumping waste directly into the open areas near their homes.

“We estimate that there are more than 30,000 homes with poor or non-existent wastewater treatment,” LeFleur said. “And that’s a conservative estimate.”

Daniel Blackman, EPA regional administrator for the Southeast, said the awards show the Biden administration is delivering on promises to solve longstanding sewage problems in Alabama’s Black Belt.

“A child should never have to grow up in the United States and live in conditions where sanitation and access to clean water are a problem,” Blackman said. “But in 2023, we’re still talking about communities here in the US where part of the state is thriving and other parts of the state are sadly struggling.

“Our job is to figure out how we can allocate funding and resources to make sure the problem doesn’t persist.”

Davis said he hears complaints from local residents “all the time” about sewer leaks, congestion or septic tanks not working properly.

“We get constant work orders every day because of septic tank problems,” he said. “Hopefully this will improve a lot and free up some work for us to do other things.”

He hopes the improved sanitation system can help attract new businesses and residents to the declining area.

“Our city is suffering because you can’t put any industry or business here because we don’t have the ability to handle the wastewater,” Davis said.

“We have Family Dollar, Dollar General, Ace Hardware, a gas station, a few restaurants, but if we had more, it would be more tax revenue.”

Funding comes from two federal laws passed since 2021, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). ADEM manages these funds in Alabama and expects to provide approximately $1 billion in infrastructure funds over the next few years to address Alabama’s water and sanitation issues.

Of that total, $225 million came from Alabama’s ARPA funds, which Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Legislature allocated to water and sanitation projects last year. ADEM also expects to raise a total of US$765 million in BIL funding over the next five years.

ADEM has already announced more than $348 million in funding for water and sanitation systems across the state, with a special focus on areas of greatest need. But these projects only reflect the water systems that are more urgently needed, LeFleur said.

Some of this funding comes in the form of grants, while others are soft or interest-free loans that can be repaid over time.

In addition to Hayneville’s sewerage project, the city will receive $2.9 million to improve its drinking water system.

Also in Lowndes County, the City of Lowndesboro will receive $1 million for water system improvements, and the Lowndes County Water Board will receive $735,000.

ADEM also awarded $2.2 million to the Alabama Department of Public Health for a demonstration project in Lowndes County that used special sewage systems designed to cope with the dense Black Belt soil.

ADEM has already received more than $3 billion in funding applications from water systems across the state looking to make improvements. LeFleur said ADEM will continue to fund projects from this list on an as-needed basis as they receive funding from the federal or state governments.

“Of the remaining proposals that were presented to us, we prioritized those that had those most in need at the top and bottom of the list,” LeFleur said.