DURHAM, N.C.—A new paper by a team of Duke researchers examines longstanding environmental justice issues in Lowndes County, Alabama, and presents key findings from an innovative, multi-year collaboration with the local community aimed at addressing and resolving the problems.

The peer-reviewed paper, published Oct. 24 in the journal Local Environment, describes a sanitation system that’s either failing or nonexistent for hundreds of homes in Lowndes County, exposing a legacy of centuries of racial discrimination and government indifference.

“In parts of rural America, communities have faced a long-standing crisis of failing septic tanks and reliance upon straight pipes and lagoons adjacent to communities to process sanitation,” the authors write. In some backyards, children haven’t been able to play in decades. According to a 2017 Baylor study, five tropical diseases have resurfaced in Lowndes, including hookworm.

The work speaks to an ongoing effort led by Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ), who, since 2022, has been sharing her expertise with Duke students and faculty as a practitioner-in-residence at the Nicholas School of the Environment, the Duke Global Health Institute, and the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

“I started focusing on the failures of wastewater infrastructure in 2002, while working in economic development in rural Alabama. I saw people being arrested in my home county of Lowndes for having raw sewage on the ground due to failing waste disposal systems and septic tanks,” Flowers said. 

A 2020 MacArthur Fellow, she serves as vice chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a position to which she was appointed in 2021 in recognition of her internationally recognized career as an activist.

But her roots are deep in Lowndes, where she grew up; the soil is rich for farming but heavy in clay, and poor in allowing for proper drainage, making the region even more vulnerable to flooding resulting from climate change.

The new survey, begun in 2018, encompassed around 300 households. Sixty percent reported that poor sanitation in waste management was a severe problem in their community; a quarter reported that it was a problem for their individual households.  

“There is an obvious institutional barrier: the history of systemic racism in the U.S., especially in my home of Lowndes County, that severely limits rural communities from having access to basic sanitation, clean water and resilient wastewater infrastructure,” Flowers said. “If we are going to tackle this problem, another barrier we need to overcome is the lack of access to accurate data around the issue.”

With funding from the Duke Global Health Institute, the Bass Connections program, and the Franklin Humanities Institute, along with input from teams of engineering and law school students and faculty, the survey shows an interdisciplinary approach that reached across the five hundred or so miles from Durham to Lowndes.

“This is a partnership that has touched many parts of the university,” said Erika Weinthal, professor of environmental policy and public policy at the Nicholas School, who was one of the paper’s authors. “It comes back to students learning what it means to work with a community. Creating a framework for how to work with universities in the space of environmental justice. Catherine is creating this language, this grammar, these principles.”

Community involvement is a foundational part of the work. Without it, Flowers said, “there is no way to guarantee that impacted communities won’t end up in a situation similar to where they were before the work started.”

The paper articulates a delicate balance between the risks and rewards of collective action. By revealing details about their household’s sanitation issues, individual citizens might have risked being subject to prosecution in the past. However, in the case of the new survey, great care was taken to develop relationships over time and protect participants. Some even decided to participate publicly.

“This has been the most powerful, challenging work—intellectually as a scholar, and more broadly, as a human—that I’ve ever participated in,” said Elizabeth Albright, Dan and Bunny Gabel Chair of Environmental Ethics and Sustainable Management at the Nicholas School, who was lead author of the paper.

Flowers, a former teacher, “has engaged thoughtfully with our students, and our students have gained from that experience,” said Albright. “Working on this project really brought to them the issues of rural America.” 

Some students have been so inspired by their experience that they have chosen to continue working on environmental justice issues facing rural communities even after leaving Duke, she noted.

The work points to a deeper reckoning in the American South. “The local community has known this, and it was visible in their everyday lives, but in many ways overlooked, because of broader assumptions that most Americans have access to clean drinking water and proper sanitation,” Weinthal said.

Situated about halfway along the Civil Rights March path between Selma and Montgomery, Lowndes County is also a place with groves of pecan trees, horses and rolling hills. People meet while fishing for bass and catfish on the riverbanks. Challenges in trust can be bridged.

Randall Kramer, professor emeritus of environmental economics at the Duke Global Health Institute and Nicholas School, drew on his experience conducting household surveys in communities in the U.S., Indonesia, and sub-Saharan Africa to help draft the new survey. He also shared his expertise on ethical data collection, transparency, and protecting confidential information, and facilitated practice survey interviews.

When statistics and theories land in living rooms, kitchens, on porches, it’s important to take care with individual sensibilities, he stressed.

“What’s special about this study is that we worked with a community-based organization from the beginning to help address some of their concerns,” Kramer said. “The community organization was absolutely essential to its success.”

Ascribing data to the problem shows a way forward, he said. “It’s really a matter of helping folks help themselves. Helping to provide them with the tools that they could use to advocate on behalf of their community.”

The paper in Local Environment appears at an inflection point in the conversation about adequate sanitation in underserved communities. In April 2023, Flowers stood with President Joe Biden as he signed an executive order on environmental justice; in May, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Health and Human Services agreed to assume the responsibility to provide adequate sewage infrastructure to all Lowndes County residents, regardless of their ability to pay. In August 2022, the Biden Administration had announced a $50 billion commitment through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address sanitation issues nationwide, especially in underserved rural areas. According to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, it’s the first Civil Rights Act Title VI DOJ environmental justice settlement in history. How these funds are implemented on a local level requires future advocacy and vigilance.

“The biggest lessons we have learned are that we need community input on the solutions being implemented, and we also need accountability from the national, regional and local governments in checking up on the solutions to ensure they are actually serving the community,” Flowers said. She’s now working with local government to include warranties on septic systems installed.

Albright notes, “According to the DOJ agreement, the Alabama Department of Public Health is responsible for assessing the sanitation problem, developing an improvement plan, and engaging with community members. For on-the-ground, measurable progress to occur, the Alabama Department of Public Health must fundamentally change their past practices by equitably and justly engaging with, listening to, and empowering the community members of Lowndes County to ensure that all community members have equitable access to sanitation.”

Long-term solutions mean thinking even further: “Access to health. Access to economic opportunities,” Albright said. “Being able to withstand the changing climate. Being able to stay in a community and thrive.”

CITATION: “Failing Septic Systems in Lowndes County, Alabama: Citizen Participation, Science, and Community Knowledge,” Elizabeth A. Albright, Catherine Coleman Flowers, Randall A. Kramer and Erika S. Weinthal;  Local Environment, Oct. 24, 2023. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2023.2267066