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Cleaner Water: North Carolina's Straight-Pipe Elimination Project

by Fred D. Baldwin

Some years ago, William and Elizabeth Thomas tried unsuccessfully to install a properly designed septic system that would replace a four-inch pipe draining household wastewater straight into a little creek a few yards behind their home.

"I scrounged up enough money to put one in," William Thomas says. Spreading his hands about two feet apart, he adds, "But I didn't get down this far until we hit water."

The Thomases live on a small hillside lot in a rural area of Madison County, North Carolina. Their situation is similar to that of many rural Appalachian families who for one reason or another-money, the lay of the land, or both-live in older homes with inadequate septic systems. By the end of the year, however, they and many other Madison County residents will have new septic systems in place, thanks to a county program backed by an impressive team of state, federal, and local partners ranging from area conservation groups to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

The genesis of the program goes back to 1995, when Governor James B. Hunt created the Year of the Mountains Commission to assess current and future issues affecting North Carolina's western mountain communities. To protect and improve water quality, the commission recommended that, in addition to reducing mine drainage and agricultural runoff, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) be directed to "aggressively pursue a program to eliminate the practice of 'straight-piping.' " For years, decades even, it had been politically easier to ignore this issue. The commission pointed out that the 1990 Census of housing showed that nearly 50,000 households in North Carolina did not have connections to either municipal sewage systems or adequate septic systems. This was true not only in mountainous areas, but also in low-income communities across the state. Some of these households were draining "black water," which includes raw sewage, into creeks or streams; others were piping toilet wastes to a septic tank but straight-piping soapy and bacteria-laden "gray water" from sinks, baths, and dishwashers. Still other households were relying on septic systems built before the installation of a dishwasher or a second bathroom; these older systems were now prone to backups or leaks.

As early as 1958, the state took the first of many steps to regulate or eliminate straight-piping. This and subsequent measures were loosely enforced. In 1996, Governor Hunt established a goal to eliminate straight-piping of untreated wastewater into western North Carolina's rivers and streams by the end of the decade. "Every child should grow up in a community with clean, safe water," Hunt says.

That same year, in response to the Year of the Mountains Commission report, the North Carolina General Assembly created the Wastewater Discharge Elimination (WaDE) program, which differed significantly from earlier, essentially punitive measures. The new law provided a temporary "amnesty" for households reporting conditions violating state environmental health codes and, more important, provided technical assistance to communities wishing to take advantage of the state's Clean Water Management Trust Fund (a fund established to finance projects that address water pollution problems). Terrell Jones, the WaDE team leader, praises Madison County for being the first county to conduct a wastewater discharge survey under the new law, and he emphasizes that straight-piping, especially of gray water, is a statewide problem.

Driving around Madison County, you see why wastewater problems are costly to correct. Roads wind up and down past rocky, fast-flowing streams and creeks that drain into the French Broad River, where white-water rafters come for excitement. Houses on back roads are far apart but near streams. If there's enough land suitable for a septic tank and drainage field downhill from one of those houses, a conventional septic system can be installed for about $2,000. But if wastewater has to be pumped uphill, the cost can easily reach $8,000 or more. This explains why punitive measures against straight-piping have been loosely enforced. Local officials know that even $2,000 is beyond the means of many families. Who would tell cash-strapped people-more often than not, elderly-that they had to sell or abandon their home or family farmstead because of a housing code violation?

A Growing List of Partners

Madison County officials decided to take the lead on a positive approach. They first turned to the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, an Asheville-based local development district that represents 19 governmental units in four Appalachian counties, including Madison. The Land-of-Sky staff took advantage of an infrastructure demonstration grant from the North Carolina Division of Community Assistance and funds from ARC to begin a wastewater survey and community-planning process. From that point, the list of partners grew rapidly. They included the DENR WaDE program, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development, the North Carolina Rural Communities Assistance Project, the state-funded Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the Pigeon River Fund, the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, the Western North Carolina Housing Partnership, and ARC.

The Madison County Health Department and Land-of-Sky took the lead locally, working with a grassroots planning committee representing a broad base of organizations, outdoor sports enthusiasts, environmental groups, and private-property owners (some of them living in homes with straight-piping). Among the decisions: to test every building in Madison County not connected to a municipal system, not just the older units. That way, no one would feel singled out, and all faulty septic systems would be spotted. "It's made the process go slower," says Heather Bullock, the Land-of-Sky regional planner assisting the project, "but it's made it better."

Not all that much slower, either. By the end of September 1999, health department employees had surveyed 4,594 of an estimated 10,000 houses in Madison County. Where plumbing configurations weren't self-evident, the surveyors dropped dye tablets into sinks and toilets (different colors for each) to see if colored water emerged into a stream or septic tank area. The survey identified 945 noncompliant systems (20 percent of the total). Of these, 258 were straight-piping black water; 535, gray water. Another 116 had failing septic systems, and 36 had only outhouses. The incidence of problems closely tracked household income.

A welcome surprise, says Kenneth D. Ring, health director of the Madison County Health Department, was how well the inspectors were received. "The cooperation has been overwhelming," he says.

Although most people with poor systems knew they had problems and wanted to correct them, some knew little or nothing about the design of their systems. For example, Ronnie Ledford, the chief building inspector and environmental health supervisor on the health department staff, recalls a visit with a man living in a mobile home. "He thought he had a septic system," Ledford says. "He had a 55-gallon drum. We found a 'black' pipe draining into a ditch line. He was very shocked. It took him some time to get his money together, but he took care of it himself."

The problem all along, however, had been that too few people had been able to get the money together to take care of things for themselves. All the agencies involved chipped in to the extent their guidelines permitted. A few septic systems were renovated with Community Development Block Grant funds, but that program's rules require that any unit being renovated in any way be brought up to code in all respects-prohibitively expensive for people in housing with other problems. The USDA provided Section 504 loans and grants for eligible elderly, low-income home owners. The largest pool of money came from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which awarded Madison County $750,000 for a revolving loan and grant fund, plus funds for administration.

Even so, setting up a workable program wasn't easy. Many low-income area residents had poor credit ratings and little collateral with which to guarantee loans. If the program's loan requirements were too tight, applicants wouldn't qualify for loans, and pollutants would continue to drain into streams; too loose, and the loan fund itself would soon drain away.

Help with Funding

The Madison County Revolving Loan and Grant Program was established with these concerns in mind. The program includes both grants and loans, the ratios based on household income. In determining credit-worthiness, the program coordinator looks at whether difficulties were caused by circumstances beyond the family's control, such as a medical emergency. If a loan still looks too risky, the applicant is referred to an educational program run by the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Western North Carolina, in Asheville.

When it appeared that Madison County might lack the legal flexibility for making the needed loans, the partners turned for help to the Center for Community Self-Help, a statewide nonprofit that offers loans as a community development tool. Self-Help agreed to make the loans from its funds, using the county's fund as its collateral. This somewhat complicated arrangement gives everyone involved some freedom to maneuver. The default rate is likely to be substantially higher than a bank could tolerate, but Self-Help makes sure applicants take the loan seriously.

"The goal is to clean up the water," explains Tom Barefoot, the USDA Rural Development manager for the area. "We're trying to build on what it takes to get people in [the program], not on possible failure."

"This is a multi-year program," adds Marc Hunt, a loan officer with Self-Help's western North Carolina regional office. "We say, ' Work on your credit and get back on the list in a few months.' We don't want to enable consumers to develop bad habits."

Contracts were let this fall for installing the first batch of new septic systems (not counting a handful of early projects). By the end of the year 2000, Madison County hopes to have replaced 130 straight-pipes.

The benefits will be both tangible and intangible. First of all, the streams of Madison County, some of which flow into a river providing drinking water for towns downstream, will be cleaner. That has important health and economic benefits for an area increasingly attractive to both outdoor recreationalists and people planning to build homes away from cities. Ironically, in some jurisdictions, worries about "image" have been a factor in unwillingness to deal more aggressively with straight-piping. "Madison County recognized an opportunity," says Barefoot, "and they had the courage to act. It's not always a politically safe decision." Marc Hunt agrees: "Many rural counties have similar situations. Any one of them could have done it, but Madison County took the lead."

Governor Hunt also has praise for the county. "I am proud of everyone involved in Madison County's work to find and fix straight-piping problems in a cooperative effort. This will only help our economic development, our public health, and our environment. But most of all, we're helping to make sure our children can grow up in a community with clean, safe water."

The various public and private partners involved hope that Madison County's experience will become a model for other counties. There have been expressions of interest from county officials inside and outside the Appalachian areas of the state.

"It's really incredible to me," says Jody Lovelace, a community development specialist with USDA Rural Development, "how we've been able to pull this together. Everyone said, 'Let's not just clean up the water. Let's help these folks develop financial responsibility and financial pride.' " For the individual households involved, there are direct benefits. Some will have a chance to build or improve a credit history. Most will benefit at least somewhat from improved property values. All, of course, will be glad to be rid of septic systems that back up or of the unpleasant and potentially dangerous discharge of wastewater of any kind near their homes. "It's a health hazard," Elizabeth Thomas says.

The Thomases, who were defeated by waterlogged soil when they tried to replace their old system years earlier, this time received help from a neighbor. He agreed to let them install a septic tank on his vacant field, downhill and off to one side of their house.

"He's a good neighbor," William Thomas says.

That pretty much sums up what Madison County, Land-of-Sky, and their various partners have accomplished. The straight-pipe elimination project began with a blue-ribbon commission's straight talk about an old problem. It's grown into a program that gives everyone involved-from agency officials to rural people living in houses built by their grandparents many decades ago-a chance to prove that they can be good neighbors to each other.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.