By Katherine Pringle, MA in Economics

This year the Duke Human Rights Center@FHI’s five-year partnership with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) became a Bass Connections project. The team is comprised of 18 undergraduate and graduate students from various disciplines working to produce useful projects for ACRE, while developing a variety of skills and learning about environmental justice and community-focused research.

Photo by Elizabeth Griffin

In August, new team members traveled to Lowndes County to learn from ACRE’s executive director Ms. Catherine Coleman Flowers, meet community members, hear about how septic tank failures have impacted their families, and see what resulted from sewage back-up in and outside of people’s homes. It was a very informative trip, where students saw first-hand the social, racial and environmental inequalities that ACRE and community members face. The time in Lowndes inspired the team to fully dedicate themselves to this collaboration over the coming year. Students divided into 5 smaller teams, each taking on a research project in consultation with Ms. Flowers and the team leaders.

During the semester, the team has delved into readings that contextualize the work in Lowndes County, such as the book by Hassan Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes, and also books and articles about the Environmental Justice Movement. Since Catherine Flowers is on the staff of the Equal Justice Initiative, the team visited The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice Memorial and in Montgomery and read Just Mercy by EJI founder Bryan Stevenson. Throughout the semester, several students also attended a Racial Equity Institute training in order to better understand the history of racism in the U.S. and how it has contributed to the issues in Lowndes County. Students also participated in the 20th Annual North Carolina Environmental Justice Summit in October and learned about the many injustices communities are fighting across the state. To learn more about the Summit, please read this reflection by Brandon Hunter, Ph.D. candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Current research projects:

The Environmental Justice timeline team continued a project from last year, identifying and selecting events going back to the 1800s which contributed to the Environmental Justice movement we have today. There were two main challenges with this project – the first being finding the ideal way to present the timeline and describe the events which will be informative and useful but clear and interesting to a lay audience. The second was choosing which events to focus on when so many important and interesting events had lasting impacts on the movement. The team made excellent progress and expects to finish the timeline this month. In the coming semester, they plan to expand on their work by interviewing influential players in the EJ movement today.

The funding team investigated existing and pending federal funding sources for privately-owned, onsite wastewater treatment systems, including the newest version of the Farm Bill (H.R. 2), the Water Infrastructure Act (33 U.S. Code §3901), and the Clean Water State Revolving Funds loan program (CWA Amdts- 33 U.S. Code §1383). They assessed the amount and mechanisms of federal funding available for Lowndes County residents, as well as identified potential barriers to accessing these funds. For each program, income eligibility requirements, or the difference between a loan or grant funding structure, may restrict participation for those who need it the most. They will also investigate if the nonprofits that administer these programs in Lowndes County have community outreach strategies in place to distribute information about federal funding to those who qualify.

The engineering team explored technological innovations which could help mitigate some of the health effects of being exposed to raw wastewater in rural areas like Lowndes. They spent the semester investigating scientific literature, developing novel approaches, and preparing to conduct experiments next semester which they hope will result in published research. If successful, their laboratory efforts could then begin to be scaled into a field-applied pilot system.

The mapping team identified various information about the County and translated it into explorable and comparable mapping data. From this, they produced data visualizations which will be helpful for informing residents, policy-makers and future researchers about key facts about the water and wastewater environment in Lowndes. They are now in a strong position to combine the data and conduct analyses to answer some important research questions.

The permit/cost-benefit team managed two valuable projects over the semester. They started the semester investigating the permitting process for on-site wastewater treatment systems, producing a guide to the publicly available process, and comparing the Alabama requirements to Mississippi and North Carolina. The team hopes to build on this information in the coming semester by comparing the publicized process with the experience of residents. They finished the semester by building a systematic approach for identifying areas within Lowndes to target for different wastewater management approaches, according to which approach has the highest benefit to cost ratio. For this work they partnered closely with both the funding and mapping teams.

As this semester comes to a close, the teams will create deliverables that they will then build on in the Spring.