News Feature | June 5, 2018

Raw Sewage A Major Problem In Appalachian Towns

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

In small Appalachian towns, finding enough money to maintain wastewater infrastructure is a big challenge.

In various locations, “the sewage system backs up into yards and basements so often that many residents became accustomed to using buckets and throwing the refuse in nearby streams,” WKMS reported.

The Appalachian Region Commission commissioned a report on wastewater infrastructure in towns in 2005. The report found that “substantial numbers of people have failing onsite systems or no wastewater treatment systems at all.”

Funding gaps in the area are substantial. Utilities in the region have shrinking customer bases and a high proportion of low-income customers.

“The authors estimated that at the low end Appalachia had about $14.4 billion in wastewater infrastructure needs. Wastewater systems in the region tend to be smaller than those in the rest of the country, on average, with about a third of people in Appalachia served by small and medium-sized systems. In general, the smaller the system, the higher the costs per person served,” WKMS reported.

Existing research on wastewater needs in the area might underreport how big the problem is.

“Appalachia has particularly high drinking water and wastewater needs outside existing centralized systems, so it is reasonable to assume that the national and state needs surveys that the research team has integrated into this report underreport overall needs for the region, perhaps substantially,” the report added.

The result of sewage problems in the region is that water quality is compromised, per the results of water sampling between 2012 and 2014 in the Red Bird River watershed in Kentucky. The sampling found that 64 percent of sites exceeded federal standards for E. coli, according to WKMS.

Appalachian towns are hardly alone. According to the American Society of Civil Engineer's 2017 report, on a national basis, there is a $105 billion investment gap for water and wastewater needs for the period of 2016 to 2025.