Case Study 6: The Face of Sanitation for the American Poor: Uniontown, Alabama
Uniontown, Alabama sits in the heart of America’s Black Belt, roughly 80 miles west of Montgomery. Depending on one’s vantage, one might see two very different versions of Uniontown. The city is small, currently hovering around 2,400 residents, but it has four commercial enterprises and a growing population. One of those enterprises, Harvest Select, runs what appears to be a tidy facility on the edge of town and employs 250 people to help with its catfish operation. Catfish farming is big business in the region, and Harvest Select’s brand is built on sustainability, local / US-raised food, and Americana. Its homey branding can be seen on its exterior signage, as well as on trucks passing along Route 80. But the town itself does not seem to be reaping any benefit from economic development.
Despite the apparent growth and employment opportunities, the city’s median household income was under $18,000 in 2016, and nearly half of the households are below the poverty level. Economic distress is written across almost every property in the city with the notable exception of Harvest Select. Though largely hidden from view, the wastewater infrastructure is also in distress.
Uniontown does not have a mechanical treatment plant for its sewage, instead collecting sewage and pumping it to lagoon system where solids settle out. The liquid effluent that remains is pumped to a spray field where, in theory, the natural vegetation, microbes, and soils absorb the nutrients and degrade the pathogens. This type of system is typical for small, rural communities where land is more plentiful than money. In addition to being inexpensive, the simple technology makes it easier to maintain – an important attribute in small communities without full-time operators.
In theory this should be a good solution, but the city’s system is not designed to handle the industrial-scale waste that Harvest Select sends to it. The catfish processing operation can readily use the lagoon’s entire capacity, leaving no room for residential sewage. Furthermore, waste from animal processing facilities is high in organic content meaning that it needs a longer residence time in the lagoons. Most cities in this situation would insist on “pretreatment” meaning that the industrial customer (i.e. Harvest Select) partially or entirely treat the sewage at their facility before sending it to the city’s treatment facility. Typically, there are steep fees or fines for sending the raw waste to the municipal plant, which is usually enough incentive to get the industrial customer to treat on premises or haul their waste elsewhere. This option seems to not have been explored for Uniontown, meaning that the residential customers are underwriting the corporate operations. It probably comes as no surprise that the residential customers are largely low-income and black, whereas Harvest Select’s owners, or at least the most widely known one, is white and wealthy.
Uniontown has tried to tackle its sewage problems. The combination of the region’s soils and hydrology, along with the city’s financial realities mean that designing wastewater treatment for the city is technically demanding. Furthermore, as with any community, public engagement in the decision-making process is essential. Unfortunately, the city continues to return to the same engineering firm that has given it poor guidance in the past. Sentell Engineering, Inc. is a three-person shop with only one professional engineer on staff (the owner) and few connections with the professional wastewater world. Sentell continues to get the city’s contracts despite poor qualifications and failures of prior projects. Many we spoke to privately wonder about the relationships between Gilbert Sentell, the firm’s (white) owner, and Harvest Select’s owner, Paul Bryant, Jr., (the scion of a powerful University of Alabama football coach), whose Tuscaloosa social circles likely overlap.
In the face of bad publicity for Harvest Select, Sentell’s most recent solution for Uniontown’s sewage is to replace the city’s lagoon and spray fields with a pipeline to carry sewage 18 miles west to the city of Demopolis. Though the design has an eye-popping price tag, the state’s congressional delegation has just appropriated a package of grants and earmarks to cover the approximately $30 million projected cost.
Whether this is the best solution for Uniontown is debatable, but the elected leaders of Uniontown don’t seem interested in bringing others into the consideration. There are multiple concerns about the long-term maintenance of the lengthy pipeline, especially if it is carrying corrosive, untreated waste. Building a mechanical treatment plant in Uniontown would be much less expensive, but given Uniontown’s poor track record with maintenance, some don’t have faith in the city’s ability to manage it. Others want to keep the investment and the operations in Uniontown and find a way to ensure that the city has the operational capacity to maintain their facilities.
There are also fundamental questions about how Uniontown can qualify for a USDA grant. The sewage facility grants from USDA require that a city show three consecutive years of financial audits, yet Uniontown apparently hasn’t had a city budget in two decades.
Uniontown has become emblematic of the types of challenges that poor cities throughout Alabama face. Unqualified engineering firms, city leaders that don’t know the right questions to ask, and lack of capacity to support operations are not unique to Uniontown. But Uniontown has something that most of the others may not yet have: a grassroots citizen group trying to shine a light into the dark corners of decision-making in its community.
Since 2005 Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice have been fighting multiple environmental injustices inflicted on the people of Uniontown and surrounding communities. We heard that their battles feel mighty lonely as they are up against powerful interests. Gradually they have drawn attention to their plight, though resources remain thin. Simple matters like open records requests, or environmental testing are monumental challenges in a community whose nearest grocery store is 20 miles away, and where nearly half of the people are below the poverty line and most of the remaining are hovering just above it. While their challenges are monumental, so is their spirit, determination, and integrity. And so is the opportunity for targeted support to make a big difference.
 ADEM update on Uniontown’s wastewater treatment system, as of August 2019: http://adem.alabama.gov/newsEvents/reports/UniontownWWTPReport.pdf