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Making Waves: Alabama

June 20, 2023

Climate problems are big ones to tackle, but people all around this great nation are taking action. This is a state-by-state review of how some are responding.

This week’s column looks at: ALABAMA and the question is: How to bring modern sewage treatment to rural communities, to improve sanitation, safeguard drinking water resources, and reduce surface water pollution with its associated public health risks?

You can listen to this program at:
Podcast: Alabama Water Institute (Nov 9, 2020)
Episode 16: Alabama Wastewater Project and Grant [51 mins] Guest: Dr. Mark Elliott

Wait, what? Don’t all communities in America have sewage treatment? If not municipal, then required septic systems? Sad to say, no. Many areas in the US lack modern conveniences others take for granted. How is the changing climate making matters worse?

From a climate standpoint, Alabama is most at risk for storms and rising heat. These two factors make untreated sewage discharged from homes to backyards an even greater problem.

Many large-scale water treatment facilities in the US were built post-WWII with federal subsidies that continued into the 1980s. Unfortunately, much of rural America was out of the loop and now, when faced with unsupportable environmental and health issues, poorer communities have to fend for themselves or continue doing without basic sanitation.

The problem is not unique to Alabama; it’s a problem in many states. In western PA, water problems stretch from Lake Erie (e.g., e. coli contamination) to Southwestern Pennsylvania (e.g., carcinogens in Pittsburgh water from raw sewage effluent & industrial waste). In between we have acid runoff from mines, and aging or broken-down septic systems in rural camps as other sources of surface/groundwater problems.

I found evidence of many grassroots efforts to address pollution problems in Alabama, including the non-profit Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. “Black Belt” is a term that refers not to communities of color but to the rich black soil of rural Alabama. From an article in The Montgomery Advertiser (July 6, 2018): “The once-coveted soil is now the reason many people […] live in dangerous conditions: the ground isn’t very permeable to water.” No wonder that increased heat, rainfall, and storm severity has brought this sewage crisis to a head.

The State of Alabama has recently developed a Hazard Mitigation Plan, which will help in prioritizing funding from the $27.2 million Alabama received to mitigate climate impacts, in Biden’s Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

Hear more good news in this week’s podcast about the work of Dr. Mark Elliott of the Alabama Water Institute, whose collaborative team is squarely at the intersection of civil engineering, innovation, and public health. The interview is interesting, not too technical, and really inspiring in what it may mean – not only for rural Alabama, but for many other states in this great nation, and beyond. Check it out!

Let me know if you have a podcast to recommend, or have a comment about my column or have trouble finding a particular podcast I’ve mentioned, email me at [email protected]. Happy listening!

Note: This column, part of a series looking at examples of positive climate action, state-by-state, first appeared in the Forest Press on 05-04-2022. If you are interested in this state’s topic, check online for updated news, as a lot may have changed in a year.

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