By Kelsey Rowland, Master of Environmental Management, Nicholas School of the Environment 2019

What do you do if you live in rural America and your septic system fails?

You cannot call your local wastewater service to fix it, because you are not connected to the municipal sewer system and therefore not their problem. You could try to repair it, but your previous attempts have been expensive and ultimately unsuccessful. You could replace it, but that would cost more than you make in a year. You could leave it broken, but then you would be exposed to a host of diseases that fester in raw sewage and perhaps face fines or even jail time for creating an environmental and health hazard.

This heartbreaking reality for many low-income, rural communities across the United States is detailed in a new report from the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University: Flushed and Forgotten: Sanitation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the United States. It is also one I have been studying for two years with a partnership between the ACRE and the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, and one that I believe can be addressed, in part, through federal funding programs.

Inadequate sanitation is a public health and human rights issue that has been made worse by decades of government disinvestment from rural communities, particularly “communities that are already marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, and socio-economic states,” as the report describes. Wastewater policies and planning practices that exclude communities from municipal sewer systems have placed the burden of maintaining an onsite wastewater treatment system entirely on residents. Despite receiving federal funding for water and wastewater projects, many state and local governments continue to overlook these marginalized communities.

The report goes into detail about communities across the country that deal with these unjust and discriminatory practices. In Mebane, North Carolina, African-American communities that were refused municipal services experienced chronic septic failures and water contamination. As a a result of persistent community activism, the Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency intervened to implement new water and wastewater treatment plants for some of the affected communities. Along the southern border, many residents of predominantly Latinx communities, known as colonias, live without running water or sewage treatment, exposing them to diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid. Despite these dire circumstances, Texas reportedly reducedaid for water and sewer services in 2017. The report goes on to discuss similar injustices across the country, from African-American neighborhoods in Ohio to tribal communities in Arizona.

My research team at Duke spent the year investigating federal funding programs that could alleviate the sanitary and fiscal burden placed on rural residents to manage their wastewater. Many of the federal programs designed to improve water and sanitation systems, like the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) or the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), primarily provide funds to state and local governments. For those outside the municipal sewer system- those overlooked and ignored by their local and state governments- the only way to benefit from these programs is through direct access.

In December 2018, with growing concern around these rural sanitation issues, Congress garnered bi-partisan support for the first federal program that would make funds available directly to impacted individuals. Section 6409 of the 2018 Farm Bill will offer small sub-grants and low-interest loans for individual households to install or maintain onsite wastewater systems, like septic tanks.  Once the program is implemented (target date is 2020), it will be important to monitor its effectiveness. Barriers, like lack of awareness about the program or high up-front costs and expertise needed to fill out the application, may prevent those most in need from accessing these funds.

While certainly a step in the right direction, one federal program will not solve widespread rural sanitation problems. States and local governments need to be held accountable for providing adequate water and sanitation services to all residents. Congress, however, can do its part to ensure that someof the billions of federal dollars earmarked for water and sanitation projects makes it way to these marginalized communities through explicit legislative mandates. Many Americans will never have to think twice about flushing a toilet, but for too many it is a choice between disease and debt, leaving them disconnected and disenfranchised.