Building It Back In Bama

Alabama wastewater professionals re-energize their state association, promote training, certification and volunteer work.
Building It Back In Bama
Contact Dave Roll at or 334/396-3434

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After a few years of belt tightening, the Alabama Onsite Wastewater Association is poised for growth. Formed 28 years ago, it is bringing back some programs that were dropped following the economic downturn and its subsequent toll on the onsite industry.

Dave Roll has been the group’s executive director for 13 years. He had little experience in the wastewater industry when he started, but has watched it change and mature over the years. After a 29-year career as an Air Force pilot and Air War College faculty member teaching Strategy, Doctrine and Leadership, he had been working part time at AOWA for about a year when his predecessor left and the position was offered to him.

Whom does AOWA represent?

Roll: You have to hold a license in Alabama to be a voting member. The bulk of our members are installers and pumpers. Then we have portable restroom companies and licensed manufacturers. Membership is by company, so we have about 175 members that represent many more individuals.

There are a few companies that are bigger than eight or 10 people, some portable restroom companies may have 50 or 60, but most of our membership is very small, individually owned family businesses.

The association started out as a group of concerned folks in the industry who used to get together at a restaurant. From there they formed the Alabama Septic Tank Association and in 2000 pushed through legislation to require licensing of onsite professionals. That created the Alabama Onsite Wastewater Board, and the group changed its name to the Alabama Onsite Wastewater Association in 2000.

What effect did the recession have on you?

Roll: We used to get 40 to 45 exhibitors at our annual conference – our members were doing well financially. We are inextricably tied to the housing industry and it fell flat. The number of licensees went from about 1,450 down to below 1,000. The number of exhibitors has almost been cut in half.

There are fixed costs for an association that don’t go down, so we tightened our belt. We used to give away $1,000 scholarships to students of families from member companies for college, vocational, technical or trade school. We also had a legal assistance program. If someone needed business-related legal advice, we had an attorney we paid for providing a consultation. We had to discontinue both of them in 2012.

We have recovered sufficiently and are seriously looking to reinstitute our scholarship program. I’m looking for an attorney with knowledge of the onsite industry so we can provide that service again. We are making a concerted effort to increase our membership. The more members we have, the more powerful we are.

Do you offer anything besides your annual conference?

Roll: We partnered with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) in February for a mini trade show and conference. This was the brainchild of Sherry Bradley, the director of Environmental Services at ADPH. We reached out to our members, those with state onsite wastewater licenses, engineers and regulators, and put them in one place at one time. It was a splendid conference with 275 attendees.

It took a little bit away from our annual conference. Normally we get about 260 people; this year we didn’t break 200. But it was probably very well worth it. ADPH would like to hold the conference again next year depending on funding.

What do you see as the value of such gatherings?

Roll: I always invite our new members, even if they don’t need their continuing education, and tell them to talk to the exhibitors. You can get a wealth of knowledge that you can’t get out of a book or through online education. It also creates a bond between the exhibitors and the people who are going to use their products.

How is your training done?

Roll: Our association has contracted with the University of West Alabama and one of their faculty members, Allen Tartt, for all our classes. We have a training facility at the university with systems in the ground and components to touch and feel. It has been a wonderful arrangement that adds academic credibility to everything we do.
Installers, pumpers, manufacturers and portable restroom operators must have initial training and annual continuing education. Allen puts together the classes, schedules the speakers and teaches many of the classes. I think we have a pretty well-educated group of licensees because of that arrangement.

What are the hot topics in Alabama right now?

Roll: There’s always the issue of what do we do with grease. Where do you off-load it without driving 150 miles and who can process it? Some municipalities will only take grease from within their borders. They are quick to encourage the restaurants to build, but they’re not so quick to build facilities to handle that waste. I’d like to say we’re making progress but I don’t think we are. Frankly, I don’t know how you fix it.

Looking ahead, what do you see for the state’s onsite industry?

Roll: It depends on what happens with the housing industry. All it would take is the housing industry rebounding and many of our problems would go away. My hope is that our good folks can get back to work and make a decent living.

Pulling together to help those in need

Alabama still has pockets of abject poverty, especially across the Black Belt region where the dark, fertile soil is great for cotton but not so much for conventional onsite wastewater systems. Despite years of effort, there is still a big need for government and private assistance across the 13 counties of the region that rank as among the poorest in the nation. Many homes have no sewage treatment system, and about half of those that exist are failing because of soil conditions. A septic system could cost more than many people’s homes.

The Alabama Onsite Wastewater Association has installed about 150 onsite treatment systems across the state over the years. “We get donations from suppliers and manufacturers and volunteer labor from our members, and install or repair systems at no cost,” says Executive Director Dave Roll.

Doing six to eight projects a year, however, just doesn’t make a dent in the problem. “We could put in one a day for the next 10 years,” says Roll. “We’re talking about thousands of people, but it’s a good program that helps families.”

It’s not just for the poor. One recent project was for a wounded veteran who is paralyzed from the chest down. Actor Gary Sinise’s Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment (RISE) organization built the soldier a customized home to fit his needs.

Tony Woodard and his son, Andy, of Economy Septic Tank, installed the septic system that was donated. “He has a wonderful house to live in,” says Roll. “It’s computer-operated, so from his wheelchair he can open doors and cabinets, shelves come down to his level. It’s magnificent, and we were able to help out thanks to the donations we received.”


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