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

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sixty million Americans rely on septic tanks to flush their toilets. But extreme rain, floods and rising seas are making the ground too wet for many to work properly. As Zach Hirsch reports, the biggest problem is in rural coastal areas like those near Hampton Roads, Va.

ZACH HIRSCH, BYLINE: When it rains for a few days in a row, 80-year-old Roosevelt Jones can't use his bathroom. Water fills the septic system in the yard, and the toilet won't flush.

ROOSEVELT JONES: So you're in bed, and you're sitting up at about 2:00 in the morning, and then you get the urge to go use the number two. A whole lot of time, you have to hold it.

HIRSCH: Jones lives in Suffolk, Va., in an area where the water table is already high. And residents who are predominantly Black have been trying to get better sanitation for decades. Septic tanks here are supposed to be cleaned every five years to avoid problems.

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

HIRSCH: Failing septic systems can leak raw sewage into nearby creeks and rivers. The fumes can also cause breathing problems. The city's done drainage work to help ease the flooding, but developers have also built new housing that pushes stormwater into people's yards. Many want a public sewer line. The city says a recent petition didn't get enough support. So Jones keeps an eye on the weather. When it's really bad, he goes to one of the churches where he does custodial work to use their bathroom. Jones' problems seem to go away when the ground is dry. But with the warming climate fueling sea level rise, experts say there are a lot of places where the ground may never dry.

MOLLY MITCHELL: We're starting to see effects of it now, but we're going to see more effects of it down the road.

HIRSCH: Molly Mitchell is a researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, identifying hotspots for septic failures. She says in most septic systems, gravity pulls the waste into the soil, where microbes treat and process it. But in saturated soil, everything overflows into surrounding areas.

MITCHELL: With both sea level rise and increasing precipitation, what we see is that the groundwater table is rising. And so you might not have the level of treatment from the sediment that you had when the system was installed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK BEEPING)

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

ROBERT HUTCHENS: We're upgrading an existing system that has failed here. It was constructed in the, you know, 1960s.

HIRSCH: The new system treats waste with coconut husks, can better withstand flooding and can cost as much as $50,000. Hutchens knows that's out of reach for most.

HUTCHENS: The ones that can afford it obviously will. But those that can't, you know, they're going to get their medicine, they're going to eat before they fix their wastewater system.

HIRSCH: This is a huge equity issue primarily affecting marginalized groups. Historians say after the Civil War, many freed slaves could only acquire property that flooded easily. Catherine Coleman Flowers is a national sanitation activist who serves on an advisory council for President Biden.

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: The people that are seeing the problems first and foremost were those that are victims of structural racism or were mandated by racial covenants in terms of where they could settle.

HIRSCH: Today unaddressed septic issues can mean fines criminal prosecution or eviction, so many people don't come forward for help. But officials say it's rare in Virginia to bring people to court over this. There are grants and loans for homeowners for routine septic service. A new law in Virginia set up a statewide fund for repairs and replacements. State officials will also start considering the impacts of sea level rise when issuing permits for new septic tanks. They say it'll be a game changer. Flowers is skeptical.

COLEMAN FLOWERS: Because I've been doing this for over 20 years, and everybody has the next best thing, and it hasn't worked, and they're right back where they started. The engineers and all the other officials that charge fees make money and they move on, and the homeowners are left holding the bag.

HIRSCH: Skip Stiles directs Wetlands Watch, an environmental nonprofit. He's not sure it's worth investing in new septic systems.

SKIP STILES: If you're along the shoreline and your septic system is flooding from underneath, it's sort of like a canary in the coal mine for the fact that within a decade or two, your house is going to flood. And it will be so compromised that we may not want to continue to support people living there.

HIRSCH: That's going to be the hardest problem, he says. By mid-century, many of the lowest lying areas could be underwater. For NPR News, I'm Zach Hirsch.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW JACKSON'S "PUT THE LOVE IN IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Zach Hirsch