HAYNEVILLE, Ala. — What babbles behind Marilyn Rudolph’s house in the rural countryside is no brook.
A stained PVC pipe juts out of the ground 30 feet behind her modest, well-maintained house, spewing raw wastewater whenever someone flushes the toilet or runs the washing machine. It is what is known as a “straight pipe” — a rudimentary, unsanitary and notorious homemade sewage system used by thousands of poor people in rural Alabama, most of them Black, who cannot afford a basic septic tank that will work in the region’s dense soil.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s kind of like living with an outhouse, and I can never, ever get used to it,” said Ms. Rudolph’s boyfriend Lee Thomas, who moved in with her three years ago from Cleveland.
“I’ve lived with it all my life,” said Ms. Rudolph, 60.
If any part of the country stands to see transformational benefits from the $1 trillion infrastructure act that President Biden signed in November, it is Alabama’s Black Belt, named for the loamy soil that once made it a center of slave-labor cotton production. It is an expanse of 17 counties stretching from Georgia to Mississippi where Black people make up three-quarters of the population.
About $55 billion of the infrastructure law’s overall funding is dedicated to upgrading systems around the country that handle drinking water, wastewater and stormwater, including $25 billion to replace failing drinking-water systems in cities like Flint, Mich., and Jackson, Miss.
Less attention has been paid to the other end of the pipe: $11.7 billion in new funding to upgrade municipal sewer and drainage systems, septic tanks, and clustered systems for small communities. It is a torrent of cash that could transform the quality of life and economic prospects for impoverished communities in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Illinois, Michigan and many tribal areas.
In this part of Alabama, the center of the civil rights struggle 60 years ago, the funding represents “a once-in-a-lifetime chance to finally make things right, if we get it right,” said Helenor Bell, the former mayor of Hayneville in Lowndes County, who runs the town’s funeral home.
But while the funding is likely to lead to substantial improvements, there are no guarantees it will deliver the promised benefits to communities that lack the political power or the tax base to employ even the few employees needed to fill out applications for federal aid.
“I am very worried,” said Catherine Coleman …….