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Experts warn of billion-dollar septic problem threatening US South: ‘These are ticking time bombs under the ground’

In World
June 12, 2024

Rising seas are causing septic systems across the South to fail, leading to public health concerns and costly repairs for homeowners.

What’s happening?

As detailed by The Washington Post, there are millions of septic tanks across the American South, but rising seas associated with a warming planet are turning them into a public health concern.

The publication explains that septic systems need to sit above a certain amount of dry soil to work properly. The soil filters the wastewater, removing most bacteria and viruses, before it reaches local waterways and subterranean drinking water sources like wells and aquifers.

Now, rising seas combined with more frequent bouts of torrential rain are leading to shallower soil buffers. In some cases, the systems become submerged by water, the Post said, leading to failure and wastewater that is not properly treated.

Why is septic system flooding concerning?

As our world continues to warm, the South can expect more rising seas and frequent flooding from storms. According to journalist and climate tech investor Molly Wood, rising global temperatures function as “steroids” for extreme weather.

While extreme weather has always existed, a hotter planet makes these events more frequent and severe. For instance, Hurricane Idalia brought massive floods to Florida in August 2023, submerging streets and displacing residents.

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If a conventional septic system is submerged, toilets can stop working, and waste can flood yards and streets. This can easily become a public health emergency, putting communities at risk for gastrointestinal diseases and other health hazards.

In Alabama’s Lowndes County, hookworm has become a problem due to raw sewage from failing septic systems inundating yards and even belching out of bathtubs.

“These are ticking time bombs under the ground that, when they fail, will pollute,” Andrew Wunderley, executive director of the nonprofit Charleston Waterkeeper, told The Washington Post.

Repairs to these systems can also prove costly for homeowners. The Post reported that replacing them with more advanced wastewater treatment systems can cost more than $30,000.

All of these negative impacts are expected to disproportionately affect lower-income and minority communities.

What’s more, septic system failures can devastate the local environment. That’s partly because leaking nutrients can get absorbed into porous limestone, leading to algae blooms that can decimate fish populations, per the Post.

“It’s really pretty gross,” Florida International University hydrogeologist Michael Sukop told the news outlet.

What’s being done about septic systems in the South?

In Miami-Dade County, where seas have risen 6 inches since 2010, at least 120,000 septic systems remain, the Post reported. Of these, about half are at risk of being “periodically compromised,” according to the article. That’s why the county is “racing to replace” as many as possible as quickly as possible, according to the Post.

However, replacing septic systems is an expensive endeavor, and so far, the Post said, officials lack the billions of dollars necessary to complete the job.

So far, about 100 homes in the county have been connected to publicly run sewage lines, the Post reported, and officials have a plan to convert another 775.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, the Post said environmentalists are suing the state for failing to consider the effects of rising seas and stronger storms when approving new septic tank permits.

Plus, scientists are trying to get a better hold of the scale of the problem across the South and its environmental impacts.

To combat rising seas and more frequent storms, it is important that reduce planet-warming pollution. To that end, you can make a difference by voting for climate-friendly candidates. You can also change the way you get around by biking or using public transportation more often.

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