In coastal areas, rising seas can also mean failing septic tanks : NPR

In rural coastal areas, rising groundwater inundates people’s properties from below, causing septic tanks to fail. States are reacting, but it could be a losing battle in some places.


Sixty million Americans rely on septic tanks to flush their toilets. But extreme rainfall, flooding, and rising sea levels make the soil too wet for many to work properly. According to Zach Hirsch, the biggest problem is in coastal rural areas like those near Hampton Roads, Virginia.

ZACH HIRSCH, BYLINE: If it rains for a few days in a row, 80-year-old Roosevelt Jones cannot use his bathroom. Water fills the sewage treatment plant in the yard and the toilet does not flush.

ROOSEVELT JONES: So you lie in bed and sit up around 2:00 a.m. and then you get the urge to use number two. Quite a lot of the time, you have to hold it.

DEER: Jones lives in Suffolk, Virginia, in an area where water tables are already high. And residents, who are mostly black, have been trying to get better sanitation for decades. Septic tanks should be cleaned here every five years to avoid problems.

JONES: And believe it or not, we had to clear this thing out twice in three days.

HIRSCH: Failing sewage treatment plants can lead to raw sewage entering nearby streams and rivers. The fumes can also cause breathing problems. The city has done drainage work to help ease the flooding, but developers have also built new houses that divert rainwater into people’s courtyards. Many want a public sewer system. The city says a recent petition didn’t get enough support. So Jones keeps an eye on the weather. If it’s really bad, he’ll go to one of the churches where he’ll be on guard duty to use the toilet. Jones’ problems seem to go away when the ground is dry. But with the warming climate fueling sea level rise, there are plenty of places where the soil may never dry out.

MOLLY MITCHELL: We’re starting to see effects of this now, but we will see even more effects of it in the future.

HIRSCH: Molly Mitchell is a researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science identifying hotspots for septic failure. She says in most sewage treatment plants, gravity pulls the waste into the ground, where microbes treat and process it. But in saturated soil everything overflows into the environment.

MITCHELL: Both with the rise in sea level and with increasing rainfall, we see that the water table rises. As a result, you may not have the sediment reprocessing level that you had when you installed the system.


HIRSCH: Robert Hutchens is installing a high-tech septic tank for a resident on a waterfront property in low-lying Gloucester County.

ROBERT HUTZENS: We’re upgrading an existing system that failed here. It was built in the 1960s.

HIRSCH: The new system treats waste with coconut shells, withstands flooding better, and can cost up to $ 50,000. Hutchens knows that this is out of reach for most.

Hutchens: Obviously, those who can afford it will. But those who can’t, they will get their medication, they will eat before they fix their sewer system.

HIRSCH: That is a huge problem of justice that mainly affects marginalized groups. Historians say that many freed slaves after the Civil War could only acquire property that was easily flooded. Catherine Coleman Flowers is a national hygiene activist serving on an advisory board to President Biden.

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: The people who see the problems in the first place are those who are victims of structural racism or have been hired by racial alliances in relation to their establishment.

HIRSCH: These days, untreated septic problems can mean fines, prosecution, or eviction, so many people don’t come forward for help. But officials say it is rare in Virginia to take people to justice over this. There are grants and loans available to homeowners for the routine septic tank. A new law in Virginia created a statewide fund for repairs and replacements. State officials will also begin to consider the impact of sea level rise when issuing permits for new septic tanks. They say it will be a game changer. Flowers is skeptical.

COLEMAN FLOWERS: Because I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and everyone has the next best thing and it didn’t work and you’re back to where you started. The engineers and all other civil servants who collect fees make money and move on, and the homeowners are left with their pockets.

HIRSCH: Skip Stiles runs Wetlands Watch, a non-profit environmental organization. He’s not sure whether it’s worth investing in new wastewater treatment plants.

SKIP STILES: If you find yourself on the coast and your sewage treatment plant is flooded from below, it’s like a canary in a coal mine, as your home will flood within a decade or two. And it becomes so compromised that we may no longer want to support the people who live there.

HIRSCH: That will be the most difficult problem, he says. By mid-century, many of the deepest areas could be underwater. For NPR News, I’m Zach Hirsch.


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