ACRE-Duke Partnership to Improve Sanitation Access in Lowndes County, Alabama (2018-2019)


Over the past several years, stories of failing and inadequate water infrastructure in urban areas of the United States—most notably, the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan—have caught the attention of the media and the public. While attention has increasingly focused on the problem of dilapidated water and sanitation infrastructure in urban America, less attention has been paid to the ways in which the absence or poor quality of existing infrastructure can undermine health and economic opportunities in rural America.

Lowndes County is illustrative of a host of social and environmental inequalities facing rural communities of color in the American South, including endemic poverty, lack of economic opportunity, hazardous health conditions and inadequate infrastructure. Only two municipalities in the county maintain centralized wastewater treatment plants, while the remaining rural population is served by on-site septic systems or lack adequate sanitation. Poor sanitation poses serious health risks. The Baylor College of Medicine found evidence of five tropical diseases, including hookworm (previously thought to be eradicated in the U.S.), in fecal samples from residents.

Since 2014, Duke’s Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute and the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) have partnered to address the inadequacy of wastewater treatment infrastructure, which is an economic, racial and environmental injustice entrenched in many communities in rural, black America.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project aims to understand the reasons for the lack of proper sanitation in Lowndes County, improve sanitation access in the county and explore racial and economic justice in rural America.

The team will work with ACRE to develop solutions for a more inclusive and sustainable economy, as access to water and sanitation are necessary for community members to be able to have viable economic livelihoods. Through the lens of the provision of water services, team members will examine three interdependent components: the physical component; the legal framework; and the political and financial dimensions. The team will develop an overarching analysis of the barriers of access to water infrastructure that stem from a history of racial and economic inequities.

Team members will analyze physical, hydrological, regulatory and economic data; conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the most efficient options for sanitation; design more affordable individual and clustered wastewater treatment systems by surveying low-cost technologies that leverage easy-to-install, low-cost materials and tailoring these solutions for Lowndes County; determine the institutional barriers that prevent communities from applying for and receiving financial assistance; and make visible the dynamic connections between ACRE’s wastewater work and a larger story of water, soil and society in Lowndes County as well as the contemporary emergence of “water protectors” and water-based organizing.

Doctoral student Brandon Hunter (Civil & Environmental Engineering) and master's student Carly Osborne (Environmental Management) serve as the team's project managers.

Anticipated Outcomes

Suitability maps for several types of infrastructure solutions; report on water quality; analysis comparing relative costs, risks and distributional impacts of three to four options to meet sanitation needs in Lowndes County; report and infographic summary of recommended zoning/growth plan for Lowndes County; template engineering design drawings and specifications for individual and clustered wastewater treatment system; report and short summary of estimated initial upfront costs for materials, installation and maintenance; report explaining how eligibility criteria, application and recipient requirements and insufficient funding act as barriers; synthesis of recommended policy solutions; story of water and history of social life in Lowndes County; analysis of water protectors and emergence of water-based organizing


Fall 2018 – Summer 2019  

  • Fall 2018: Develop team charter and projects for each team; review past years’ work with ACRE; meet with Catherine Flowers; team meetings on projects; participate in EJ Summit; work in disciplinary teams
  • Spring 2019: Revisit team charter and plan different outcomes (documentary film, timeline, academic publication, reports); work in disciplinary teams; meet with Catherine Flowers; present draft projects; develop trip to Lowndes County and summer work plans; present projects
  • Summer 2019: Student trip to Lowndes County; present student projects

Team Outcomes to Date

Environmental Justice Timeline

Duke Support for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks (D-SIGN) grant for Duke University Environmental Justice Network (Brandon Hunter, Katy Hansen, Walker Grimshaw, et al.)

ACRE-Duke Partnership to Improve Sanitation Access in Lowndes County, AL (poster by Caroline Heitmann, Meghana Kuppa, Tenzin Yangkey, Marina Smalling, Gino Nuzzolillo, Madelyn Winchester, Ana Ramirez, Elizabeth Allen, McKenzie Cook, Laura Landes, Kelsey Rowland, Onuoha Odim, presented at Bass Connections Showcase, Duke University, April 17, 2019)

Solution-centered Collaborative Research in Rural Alabama. 2018. Erika Weinthal, Elizabeth A. Albright, Catherine Coleman Flowers, Emily Stewart. Items: Insights from the Social Sciences.

Environmental Justice and Groundwater Impacts of Hog Farms in Eastern North Carolina (honors thesis by Elizabeth Griffin, Civil & Environmental Engineering)

On-site Wastewater Treatment in Lowndes County, Alabama: A Failure in Engineering and Politics (honors thesis by Hailey Prevett, Civil & Environmental Engineering)

Community-level Cost Comparisons of Wastewater Treatment Systems in Lowndes County, AL (honors thesis by Marina Smalling, Civil & Environmental Engineering)


Kelsey Rowland

Disconnected and Disenfranchised: How the Federal Government Can Help Rural Communities Manage Their Waste

No More Forgetting: Learning from a Global Human Rights Perspective on Sanitation Issues Nationwide

Flushed, Forgotten and Unincorporated Communities: Taking a Human Rights Perspective on Sanitation Issues

Updates from Environmental Justice Bass Connections Teams

Duke Goes to Washington, D.C. to Testify to U.S. Congress on Water and Wastewater Infrastructure

Students Attend the Climate Reality Leadership Corps Training

Students Participate in the Climate Justice Training

Environmental Justice in Lowndes County, AL

A Just Environment: Industry, Environmental Policies and the Community

2018 NC Environmental Justice Summit


What Is Environmental Justice?

Sharmila Murthy

Robert Bullard

Cherri Foytlin

Ryan Emanuel

Using Stories to Change the World | Climate Justice Workshop at Duke

This Team in the News

Learning about Environmental Disasters and Injustices in Louisiana

Updates from Environmental Justic Bass Connections Teams

How Environmental Justice is Shaping a New Civil Rights Movement in the South

Wastewater Treatment Is a Problem in the Rural South. Who Is Working to Fix It?


Team Leaders

  • Elizabeth Albright, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Emily Stewart, Franklin Humanities Institute-Duke Human Rights Center
  • Erika Weinthal, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/graduate Team Members

  • Walker Grimshaw, Master of Environmental Management, Water Resources Management
  • Kathleen Hansen, Environmental Policy-PHD
  • Brandon Hunter, Civil & Environmental Engg-PHD, Civil & Environmental Engg-MS
  • Ryan Juskus, Religion-PHD
  • Mrudula Kuppa, Civil & Environmental Engg-MS
  • Laura Landes, Master of Environmental Management, Environmental Economics/Policy
  • Emma Lietz Bilecky, Master of Environmental Management, Environmental Economics/Policy, Theological Studies-MTS
  • Carly Osborne, Master of Environmental Management, Water Resources Management
  • Katherine Pringle, Economics-AM
  • Kelsey Rowland, Master of Environmental Management, Water Resources Management
  • Yan Sun, Master of Environmental Management

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Elizabeth Allen, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • McKenzie Cook, Int Comparative Studies (AB)
  • Elizabeth Griffin, Environmental Engineering(BSE)
  • Caroline Heitmann, Civil Engineering (BSE)
  • Eugene Nuzzolillo, History (AB)
  • Onuoha Odim, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Hailey Prevett, Environmental Engineering(BSE), Earth & Ocean Sciences (AB2)
  • Ana Ramirez, Religion (AB), Environmental Sci/Policy (AB2)
  • Marina Smalling, Civil Engineering (BSE)
  • Madelyn Winchester, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Tenzin Yangkey, Environmental Engineering(BSE)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Megan Mullin, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • David Schaad, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Catherine Coleman Flowers, Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE)*