Many rural households in America don’t have access to safe sewage systems. In Alabama, entrenched poverty and unusual geology have created a public-health disaster.
When Pamela Rush was a young woman, in the late nineties, she moved into a trailer on an orange-dirt road in Collirene, Alabama. Rush’s home sat on half an acre of land, surrounded by lush woods, and her sister Almedia lived in another trailer on the same plot. The family had bought Rush’s trailer, a pale-blue single-wide, a few years earlier. She moved in to take care of her aging mother, and ended up staying for decades.
At forty-eight, Rush had full cheeks and a shy way of carrying herself. She looked everyone in the eye, but often had to be reminded to speak up. “Everybody in the neighborhood knows her,” her niece Veronica said. Rush’s family was one of the largest in the area, and she got together nearly every weekend with her six sisters and their children—eating, drinking, playing cards, catching up.
But Rush hesitated to invite visitors inside her trailer. It was falling apart. The walls were porous, and in hot weather the energy bill came to more than three hundred dollars a month. To save money, and to keep out rodents, she stuffed rags into holes and set traps outside the door; she kept a running tally of the opossums she caught. Trailer homes often begin losing value as soon as buyers take them off the lot. Because Rush’s mortgage had exceptionally high interest, she had paid for hers twice over already: a hundred and fourteen thousand dollars, with some fifteen thousand still to go. Her total income—including disability payments and some support from the father of her children—was less than a thousand dollars a month.
Rush’s home is in a part of Alabama known as the Black Belt, named for its rich, dark topsoil, which in the years before the Civil War made cotton the state’s main source of wealth. Now the farming that was once done by enslaved people and sharecroppers is mostly done by seasonal workers and machines. Jobs are scarce. Lowndes County, which includes Collirene, is one of the poorest counties in one of America’s poorest states.
The dirt in the region, ideal for planting cotton, isn’t good for much else. It sits in a thin layer atop impermeable clay-laden soil, which, in the early days of agriculture there, frustrated farmers trying to dig wells. Now the problem is more often with sewage. The state of Alabama mandates that anyone who is not on a municipal sewer line—which includes eighty per cent of Black Belt residents—invest in a private waste-management system. But conventional septic tanks, which store sewage until it can be filtered by the earth and consumed by microbes, are often defeated by the dense soil. For these conditions, the state recommends a “mound” system, which uses piled-up dirt to filter waste. Yet, in a region with a high water table and intense rains exacerbated by climate change, the mounds frequently erode and the tanks fail, sending sewage back through toilets, sinks, and bathtubs. In Lowndes County, at least forty per cent of households have an inadequate septic system or none at all.
In Alabama, not having a functioning septic system is a criminal misdemeanor. Residents can be fined as much as five hundred dollars per citation, evicted, and even arrested. Rush’s sister Viola was once arrested for a sewage violation. But installing a new system can cost as much as twenty thousand dollars, which is more than the average person in Lowndes County makes in a year. Instead, Rush, like her neighbors, used a pipe to empty waste into the grass outside—a practice, called straight-piping, that is not uncommon in much of rural America. (At least one in five homes in the U.S. is not on a municipal sewer line.) Floods carry sewage across people’s lawns and into their living areas, bringing with it the risk of viruses, bacteria, and parasites that thrive in feces. Studies have found E. coli and fecal coliform throughout the Black Belt, in wells and in public waters. A United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty, visiting in 2017, said that the sewage problem was unlike anything else he had encountered in the developed world. “This is not a sight that one normally sees,” he said.
Rush’s situation got so bad that, in 2017, her sister Barbara sent a Facebook message to an environmental activist named Catherine Coleman Flowers. For two decades, Flowers has helped people struggling with sewage problems in Alabama. (She was recently named a MacArthur Fellow.) A petite woman of sixty-two, with a gentle drawl and a no-nonsense demeanor, Flowers is a reassuring presence; she grew up in Lowndes County and is distantly related to Rush, as she is to many people in the area. Still, she was shocked when she saw the trailer. “She showed me how they were living, and I cried,” Flowers told me.
When I started visiting Flowers to report on her work, the following year, she took me to see Rush, who greeted us warmly and led us inside. The trailer was dim and claustrophobic, though Rush took care to keep it clean. Sheer pink-and-blue curtains swayed in front of a window. Rush’s nine-year-old daughter, Bianca, had a bedroom at one end of the trailer, but she spent most nights on the living-room couch, because the power was out in her room and she needed a cpap machine to breathe while she slept. (Rush had diabetes and, like her daughter, difficulty breathing at times.) Rush’s son, Jeremiah, also lived there; he had a learning disability and, at sixteen, was still in middle school. The foul moisture in Rush’s yard seemed to penetrate the trailer, and mold bloomed on Bianca’s bedroom walls.
When Flowers first met Rush, she gave her the same talk that she gives everyone: “I can’t promise you anything, but what I will do is bring people who have the means to see the problem, and hopefully one of them will be moved enough to help you.” She began inviting influential visitors. The Reverend William J. Barber II, of the Poor People’s Campaign, came to see the place. So did Jane Fonda. Bernie Sanders made a campaign video that showed him embracing Rush and telling her that he would not forget about her.
In the summer of 2018, Flowers met Rush at the speck of an airport in Montgomery, about fifty minutes from Collirene, to see her off to Washington. Rush was due to appear in a congressional hearing on poverty, testifying before Sanders, Elijah Cummings, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker. It would be her first time on a plane, but she didn’t mind; she had Bianca and Almedia with her.
From The New Yorker