In the Black Belt of the American South, residents of Uniontown, Alabama, are making a continued plea to be included in crucial decisions regarding the future of a failing sewage system.
As many rural towns across the country struggle to build and maintain the infrastructure necessary to establish a healthy quality of life, a number of predominantly Black communities have been seeking environmental justice by utilizing federal funding to fix deficient sewage and wastewater systems. From nearby Lowndes County, Alabama to Cahokia Heights, Illinois, there are many places like Uniontown facing urgent needs.
Ben Eaton is a leader at Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice and a commissioner for Perry County, where Uniontown is located. He has been trying to keep up to date with changes to the town’s sewer system. But it hasn’t been easy.
“When we ask questions about the different things that we are concerned about, we are sort of ignored,” Eaton commented. “I think that is a racial discrimination injustice problem here.”
A new sewer project is currently being planned in Uniontown, but its systems have been out of compliance with Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) requirements for decades. According to a report from the Institute of Human Rights at Columbia University, current government funding “is inadequate to meet sanitation infrastructure needs, particularly for rural communities.” As the report notes, places with high levels of poverty have limited local tax bases, which leaves insufficient funds for local governments to invest in sanitation solutions.
Higher levels of government, like the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development Office, can be a resource for rural towns in need of additional funding. However, funding alone cannot address deeper historic and systemic issues, including legacy pollution, limited staffing, and lack of public engagement.
These are the challenges community members in places like Uniontown are taking on.
Welcome to Uniontown, Alabama
Nine out of 10 residents in Uniontown are Black and more than half live below the poverty line, according to the most recent figures from Data USA. The small town of nearly 2,000 in Perry County has a significant history of environmental degradation.
In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), and Perry County Commissioners approved moving 4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash from Kingston, Tennessee to Uniontown, according to the American Bar Association. Since then the Arrowhead Landfill has received waste from 33 states, and local residents have experienced emissions of foul odors, loud noises, and breathing problems due to the landfill site.
“We tried and tried to convince them that … it was a bad idea, and there were a lot of environmental concerns that we had about it,” said Mary, a resident of Uniontown.
Finding Funding, But Still No Fix for a Failing System
In 2018, Uniontown received a $23.4 million Water and Waste Disposal grant from USDA to replace its current sewage system. Additional private grants by corporations brought total funding to more than $30 million, though final totals have not been confirmed. U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama’s seventh congressional district helped lead the charge in securing the grant.
“I am pleased that USDA will provide this essential funding to the City of Uniontown to help repair their existing wastewater treatment plant,” she said.
Yet the grants from 2018 weren’t the first instance of funding to fix Uniontown’s wastewater challenges. In 2012, it received $4.8 million to address the failings of its current system, which uses a sprayfield and lagoon to treat and drain wastewater. About half of the 2012 funding was a grant and the other half was a loan the city is still repaying.
There is no record of any entity being held accountable for the 2012 project’s ultimate failure, which involved upgrades to the sprayfield and lagoon, handled by Sentell Engineering, a local firm. Despite continuing issues with the upgraded system, Sentell was again named in the 2018 USDA grant application, this time to build a new system, a pipeline connecting up to Demopolis, a nearby town 20 miles to the west.
Clarence Black, the chair of the local Water and Sewer Board said it would be costly to go to an engineering firm other than Sentell. To complete the 2012 project, Sentell used previous data and findings from the sprayfield’s original engineers, but it lacked information that would have shown the spray pumps weren’t compatible with the area’s soil.
In that regard, “it was designed to fail,” Black said, when discussing the 2012 project.
Now looking forward to the future of Uniontown’s sewage system, Black says the board is open to entertaining any ideas that work. “If [there’s] a plan … working somewhere else, we’re going to be glad to tour it and get an opinion about it.”
Meanwhile, local residents described their struggles to access information and offer comments, just the same as with the 2012 project, and they worry about the consequences of another failed approach.
A Closer Look at the Sewage System — and its Failures
Uniontown’s existing infrastructure uses a sprayfield and lagoon system. How does it work, and, in many cases, fail to do so?
“After passing through the treatment process [in a lagoon] … water is spray irrigated onto the spray field, where it is supposed to percolate into the ground,” explained Mark Barnett, an environmental engineering professor at Auburn University. “However, because the soils don’t percolate very well, the water backs up, overflows out of the spray field, and goes directly to the creek.”
These overflows of untreated sewage have been very common, said Nelson Brooke, a “riverkeeper” who works for an organization that aims to keep the region’s Black Warrior River and its tributaries free from pollution. Brooke has monitored the situation in Uniontown for years and said that thanks to aging pipes and Alabama’s heavy rains the system is overwhelmed. “There’s just a constant state of overloading of the system,” he said. “The collection pipes that feed to the lagoon from homes and businesses are really old, falling apart, [and] have cracks in them.”
There have been 150 reported overflows into the nearby Freetown and Cottonwood creeks since reporting began in 2004, according to Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSO) reports for Uniontown. These overflows require repairs to pipes, pumps, and spray fields. Local officials place signs to notify the public of incidents, but it has been unclear to many community members where those signs are placed and for how long.
Along with heavy rains, a local catfish processing company, Harvest Select, discharges about 110,000 gallons per day into Uniontown’s lagoon, making them the largest emitter to the system, according to an ADEM press release. The Black Warrior Riverkeepers organization has been in contact with the USDA and ADEM trying to limit the amount of waste Harvest Select can pump into the lagoon.
“It’s a very water-intensive process and they discharge their wastewater after a little bit of pre-treatment into the Uniontown lagoon,” Brooke said. “They’re clearly discharging too much into the system and contributing to these illegal overflows, yet neither ADEM nor the authority in charge of the lagoon [has] done anything to put a limitation in place.”
New Board Oversight, Continuing Concerns
On Uniontown’s City Hall bulletin boards there are hundreds of paper notices to town residents interested in being updated. Among these cluttered papers are announcements of the town’s upcoming Water and Sewer Board meetings. The board holds power in determining the future of Uniontown’s failing sewer system.
The Water and Sewer Board is a relatively new entity, established under the terms of the 2018 grant. Its members were appointed by the City Council, but they are a separate, independent entity from the council, according to the board’s attorney, Prince Chestnut. The board has its own bylaws, and its members’ positions are funded by the USDA grant.
On a Tuesday morning in August, while most residents were at work, a few Uniontown residents filed into city hall and sat across the room from those Water Board members as they commenced the monthly board meeting. Eaton, the Perry County commissioner and leader of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, is the first member of the public to participate, inquiring about documents pertaining to the new sewage project.
“Are you all going to get that information out?” Eaton asked. “If so, when? If not, why?”
As tensions rose between Eaton and Water Board Chairman Black, Chestnut brought their conversation to a halt and promised to provide documents in the next meeting. The Daily Yonder made multiple requests for these same documents, from the Water Board, Attorney Chestnut, and USDA representatives, but these weren’t fulfilled by the time of publication.
Beyond the requested documents, recordings of the Water and Sewer Board meetings aren’t shared online, and there are no accessible, published meeting notes, making it difficult for the community to stay involved.
“The pandemic caused meetings to be held virtually, but the last two meetings have been in the public city hall auditorium,” said a Uniontown resident named Ellis. “It actually seemed to me that there were more people involved when the meeting had to be a Zoom meeting.”
In addition to these challenges, the board’s Chairman doesn’t take emails from the public and only does correspondence by phone.
“Anyone [that wants] to address the board about issues that they have with the sewer system, I made it open,” the chairman said. “They don’t have to go out and fill out no paper to get on the agenda.”
Catherine Flowers, an activist and director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, is familiar with these situations that confront low-income Black communities like Uniontown and her own home, nearby Lowndes County. Lowndes County also has experience with deficient septic systems in need of change, and Flowers noted how essential it is to involve the public.
“[Are they] listening to people in the community instead of their handpicked spokespersons?” Flowers said. “Ignoring them is a flagrant violation of the principles of environmental justice.”
“If they present you with certain information, you got a fighting chance,” echoed Uniontown Mayor Christopher Jones. “[But] them withholding that information, by the time you get the information, it’d really be too late to even put up a fight.”
“They pushed it back to a deadline,” he continued, “And then they tell everybody, ‘We have to meet this deadline.’”
While multiple experts and engineers have offered professional opinions throughout this process, Uniontown residents fear their input will be ignored and wastewater will be sent to Demopolis, regardless of the impacts of that choice.
“It’s what we expected because that’s the way it was with the first project, the $4.8 million,” said Eaton. “We are being exed out of being involved.”
“The Best Resolution We Can Get”
Much is at stake in these confrontations, including environmental protection for local creeks and rivers, accountability for local industries, and quality of life for local residents. When sewage and wastewater systems like Uniontown’s fail, it damages air and water quality and plagues communities with terrible odors.
The financial implications of these projects are front of mind as well. There has been concern that these wastewater projects are being used to take advantage of a small rural community.
“I don’t think the funds should be used for the benefit of other entities that might have an interest in it,” said the Uniontown resident named Mary. “It’s not for them, it’s for [Uniontown] to get the best resolution we can get.”
The presumptive option of sending sewage to Demopolis leaves the care of Uniontown’s wastewater in another city 20 miles away. Citizens are also worried about an increase in residents’ utility rates to fund a project of that scale.
Uniontown resident Portia Shepherd plans to take time off from work to attend the October meeting and voice her concerns.
“The income of elderly people in this community is very low,” she said. “They can not afford to pay an extra $10, $15 a month and survive.”
The water board chairman admitted there would probably be some rate adjustments but they would need to “have something that’s feasible for the people to pay.”
Lynn Phillips, a retired engineer who has offered consultation to the water board and wrote a technical memorandum with recommendations, also asked the board to consider the needs of its citizens.
“There seems to be an obsession with pumping the wastewater to Demopolis no matter what. And it doesn’t make any sense,” he said. He added later, “In my opinion, it’s going to create as many or more problems than it’ll solve.”
Concerns also remain over Harvest Select, the local catfish processing company that dispels large amounts of waste into the Uniontown lagoon daily.
“‘Mrs. Smith’ down the street doesn’t need to be paying a higher sewer bill,” Phillips said, “Just so Harvest Select can dump anything they want to.”
Mark Barnett, the environmental engineering professor at Auburn University, has also offered his professional opinion on the situation. He attended September’s water board meeting and suggested conducting a value engineering study to “get some input from the public to inform their recommendations.” He did a similar presentation for the City Council in 2016, after being contacted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice.
When asked if the Water Board was considering other options, Chairman Black said, “We’re open for ideas, suggestions that work, and anything of that caliber, but we [have] got to make sure that we get something that’s been proven.”
Until that new thing is ultimately built, whether it’s a pipeline to Demopolis or not, reducing overflows of industrial sewage to the current lagoon would benefit the community. But local residents and stakeholders say they see no evidence of plans to address it.
“What’s weird is that even though all of these millions are being thrown at it, the problem just keeps getting worse, rather than better,” said Brooke, the riverkeeper. “The local industries are not being held accountable the way that they could and should be.”
A press release from ADEM said a “properly managed and resourced water board could work collaboratively with ADEM and industrial users … to provide affordable, reliable environmental protection for its residents.” But the water board’s attorney noted that the board has no regulatory power and the city would need to pass and enforce an ordinance. He also pointed to ADEM as the “Alabama regulatory agency that handles those matters.”
Meanwhile, the people of Uniontown continue waiting for failing systems to be fixed and for their needs and concerns to be heard and addressed.
“No one is asking the residents about the failures. Why and how often?” said Flowers, the Lowndes County environmental justice activist. “The people that stand to profit have designed and built failed systems again and again with no liability.”