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'Cluster' water treatment system to be tested in Black Belt; leaders say more community buy

Jul 04, 2023

An estimated four million gallons of raw sewage end up on the ground surface directly outside of homes in 16 counties of the Alabama Black Belt each day. It runs into nearby creeks and streams, it disrupts the lives and health of residents, it keeps businesses away.

“There are just so many things that the lack of wastewater access touches,” said Kevin White, professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Civil, Coastal, and Environmental Engineering at the University of South Alabama. “It’s public health, it’s environmental health, it’s economic development.”

Now, proponents of plans for small wastewater treatment units that could each link about 90 or more homes in rural areas far from major sewer systems say they’ll help solve the sewage problem that’s in recent years led to international attention, and more recently, a Department of Justice probe.

But installing the “decentralized cluster systems” will take buy-in from local communities and utility providers who would build and manage them, as well as from homeowners who would pay a monthly fee to maintain the systems.

White is part of the Consortium for Alabama Rural Water Wastewater Management, formed about five years ago to bring together stakeholders on the sewage problem attributable to the rural area’s high-poverty levels, clay soil that renders traditional septic tanks and drain fields mostly useless, and small governments with little tax base or engineering expertise.

In 2018, the consortium outlined a three-pronged approach of solutions for the sewage problem: Municipalities with sewer systems apply for funding to upgrade and expand their infrastructure; identify in each county clusters of about 90 or more homes within a five mile radius to potentially “sewer together” to a cluster treatment unit or pump that collected wastewater to a nearby municipality; and on-site treatment for the most remote homes.

White said there are between four and 25 potential clusters of homes in each of 16 Black Belt counties. He isn’t including Montgomery County in his equations but said in all, thousands of homes could be put on cluster systems. If all the identified potential clusters were created, 75% of the region would have sewer access. Now, about 50% do.

Unlike traditional municipal sewer systems that have miles of large pipes, clusters use “effluent sewers” where each home has a septic tank. Solids are collected there and wastewater travels through smaller pipes to a recirculation tank, part of the treatment system, where it’s diluted with clean water, treated and disposed of. Meanwhile, the solids left in the septic tank significantly biodegrade over time, but would need to be removed every seven to 10 years. That cost would be part of the monthly fee homeowners pay, White explained.

“We’re not trying to provide a treatment plant like we would for Montgomery or Birmingham, that’s not going to work in the rural Black Belt,” White said. “And so we’re trying to look for appropriate, low-cost, low-operation and maintenance-cost technologies and that’s what our demonstration is hopefully going to show.”

A first demonstration site is planned for Hale County and bids on the construction of the first phase of the project are expected to be opened today. That phase of the project involves Auburn University’s Rural Studio in Newbern, part of its School of Architecture.

“We will put in the first treatment unit and the first collection unit and people can come and see how simple it is and it’s not big and ugly and it doesn’t have odor,” White said.

Subsequent phases could include up to about 150 homes – if the community agrees and a utility provider wants to manage the project long term. Similar commitments are needed across the Black Belt.

In 2022, legislators put $5 million of American Rescue Plan Act money toward the early effort on cluster systems. Sen. Greg , R-Range, chairman of the Senate General Fund budget committee, said the money was allocated after conversations with the Consortium, as well as the state departments of public health and environmental management.

On Monday, Albritton said there are now the means and technology to fix the problem, but there needs to be a local “will to move forward.”

White is hopeful that local governments will move quickly enough to take advantage of recent federal funds for infrastructure. While the state has already allocated the remaining ARPA money, Albritton said it is committed to fixing the Black Belt sewage issue. But it won’t do it alone.

“The state is not going to force this on any community that doesn’t want it,” he said.

And the state won’t spend money somewhere homeowners can opt out of a cluster and continue to run sewage from their home onto the ground through a straight-line pipe.

White and Albritton participated Monday in a meeting with county commissioners in Hale County, the local water authority and its third-party operator. While there’s no commitment for more cluster systems in the county, discussions will continue.

The estimated cost to attach a house to a cluster system is about $18,000 to $22,000. That Newbern project with about 150 houses is expected to cost about $2.8 million, White said.

That’s the most economical option in an area where traditional septic tanks don’t work, White and Albritton agreed.

Hale County is in Rep. Curtis Travis’ district. Travis has a master’s degree in environmental engineering and is optimistic about what the cluster systems could mean for residents and economic development in the area.

“This is a demonstration model, but I think it could be really effective,” Travis, D-Tuscaloosa said. “We have to do something.”

He said he hopes local communities and leaders will consider the clusters as a new possibility.

“… This is a time that we do have some federal funds available and we need to utilize those,” he said about the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. “We know the technology is there. If we can economically go through this treatment process, we need to do everything we can to do it.”

White said he and partners have been developing educational materials on the clusters and meeting with local governments and utility providers. A symposium is planned in October in Montgomery.

Matt Conner, deputy director of the Alabama Department of Public Health’s Environmental Services Bureau, said the cluster systems are one of several possible sewage solutions.

“It will be population driven,” Conner said. “There will probably be a sweet spot where you can get enough houses on it and get the utility in there to take care of it and not have a sky-high sewer bill.”

Management of the clusters is an issue to overcome. Ninety homes feeding into a cluster doesn’t make for a sustainable utility unless the per-home fees were unreasonably high, White said.

“We have to figure out a way for one utility to manage many of these clusters,” he said. “Then you would have thousands of customers paying a reasonable sewer fee and it would be sustainable.”

He foresees a scenario where one utility manages all the clusters in one county, or multiple counties.

Lance LeFleur, director of ADEM, said his agency wants to see the cluster systems work and is thankful for the Consortium’s efforts, but admits proponents working within federal funding deadlines “have their work cut out for them.”