In Catherine Coleman Flowers’ new book Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret she writes, “Too many Americans live without any affordable means of cleanly disposing of the waste from their toilets, and must live with the resulting filth. They lack what most Americans take for granted: the right to flush and forget.”
In 2000, she returned to Lowndes County, Alabama, where she was born and raised, after leaving for years for college and career, to serve as an economic development consultant for the county. But she found that she was unable to get that work off the ground because of the lack of basic wastewater infrastructure throughout the county. And so waste became her mission.
In Alabama, it is illegal for your home not to be attached to some kind of waste management system — either a municipal sewer line or personal equipment like a septic tank. But many families live in unincorporated jurisdictions, meaning not part of any municipality, and are subject to $500 in fines and even arrest because of faulty or non-existent wastewater infrastructure.
This criminalization occurs heavily across Alabama’s Black Belt, where Lowndes County is located and where low- and fixed-income families rely heavily on septic systems, to a fault. For one, they are expensive — running about $6,000 on average, and as much as $20,000 for larger properties, and cost even more to install, maintain and fix. As a result, many of these septic tanks are aged, eroded and malfunctioning to the point where many families live with fecal matter and waste upchucked from the systems onto the grounds around their homes, causing sickness. In 2017, Flowers worked with a group of tropical disease researchers who found thathookworm was spreading among some Lowndes County families (Alabama’s health departmentdisputes the findings of the study).
Flowers commissioned that study for the non-profit organization she founded called the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, which now is called theThe Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. Through this organization — with the help of the Equal Justice Initiative, where she serves as rural development manager — she has advocated for families who have become victims of poor county and state wastewater planning. Through her work, she has enlisted the support of celebrities, politicians and activists such as Jane Fonda (who sits on the CREEJ board), Senator Bernie Sanders and Reverend William Barber. In October, Flowers was awarded one of the prestigious 2020MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” grants for her work in this field.
This year, her efforts have been further complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the growing climate change crisis, which produces storms and flooding that have further eroded faulty wastewater infrastructure in many areas. In November, Alexis Okeowo wrote for The New Yorker about the tragicstory of Pamela Rush, a Black woman in Lowndes County whom Flowers helped get a new mobile home with brand new plumbing after living for years with fecal waste from a broken system. Rush passed away from Covid-19-related symptoms before she was able to move in.
The problem spans far beyond Alabama: A recentstudy in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that an estimated 220,300 households in the nation’s top 50 metros have incomplete plumbing systems in their homes. While this problem is prevalent throughout the rural South, many of these families also live in the New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco metro areas. According to the study, households led by people of color in the 50 largest metros are 34% more likely to live in these conditions.
Bloomberg CityLab spoke with Flowers about her work, which began with a chance encounter in the early 2000s with Robert L. Woodson, also a MacArthur fellow and an advocate for urban community development, but one who mostly travels in conservative, Republican circles. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Talk about meeting Woodson and how he was instrumental in helping you launch this campaign for wastewater improvement despite having differing politics.
The way I met Bob Woodson — actually I did meet him before, and we clashed over political views, but he doesn’t remember that. I can’t remember exactly what the exchange was, but I know it didn’t go well. Anyway, when I heard him the next time, it was during the time when they were trying to determine who the president [in the 2000 Bush versus Gore election] was because of the hanging chads in Florida. He was speaking on behalf of the Bush camp and I don’t know why I paid him any attention, but something told me to. I was [later] invited to D.C. for the faith-based summit that they had and he was one of the speakers. When he came off the stage, I followed him and stopped him, and introduced myself. I told him that I had met him before and that I had disagreed with him. I was upfront. I said, ‘But I need your help in Lowndes County.’ I told him I was doing economic development for the county, and he gave me his card and said, ‘Call me and set up an appointment.’ So I did and I brought some people with me from Lowndes County to meet with him in his office [in D.C.].
Somehow the conversation turned to faith, and I think that’s what got his attention. He said that he wanted to come and visit Lowndes. So when he came to visit, he brought with him a gentleman named Bob Moore. And one of the things I noticed about Bob, he said, ‘I’m not a Republican, I’m a Democrat.’ A lot of his friends I found out were actually Democrats, although he called himself a Jack Kemp-Republican. He felt that everybody needs to have opportunity and access, and he was able to use his access to help us. During our first tour of Lowndes County, we were walking and this man came up to Mr. Woodson crying and asked for his help. He said they had closed his church and that they could not worship there anymore because he didn’t have a working septic system. And of course Mr. Woodson met with the husband and wife who had been arrested [for the faulty waste equipment]. They were supposed to go back to court and when we left there, the first thing he did was he got in touch with Bill Raspberry, the columnist at The Washington Post who ended up writing about it. And then we went to meet with the judge on the matter, and I do believe that, because of his meeting with the judge that they did not pursue prosecuting the family, because he had promised to put resources into trying to help them. And that was how we got started [on wastewater infrastructure advocacy].
How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted people living with faulty wastewater equipment?
It illuminated it by shining the light on the disparities that exist in communities of color and marginalized communities in rural America, where they closed hospitals and they don’t have access to the kind of infrastructure that makes places attractive to other people. Lowndes County has had the highest per capita death rate in the state of Alabama. And that doesn’t surprise me because what it underscores is how the economic system is set up so much like slavery. The difference is that people are getting paid, but they’re not being paid a fair wage. And a lot of the people working in essential jobs live in places like Lowndes County. But when they go home, if they get sick, how do they isolate in a mobile home, [or] in a house that’s less than a thousand square feet? And they may have one bathroom. In Cancer Alley (Louisiana) or Navajo Nation, where they don’t have access to water or to water infrastructure, or Detroit, which is not rural, but they shut off the water there so they don’t have sanitation — how are you going to wash your hands during a pandemic? What the coronavirus to me has shown is that we have put in place a system that benefits a few, but hurts so many that are less fortunate because the system would not allow them to get out of it.
Is it the case that wastewater infrastructure is being weaponized against poor people?
The way it has worked is that the people who have gotten the wastewater infrastructure are people who have money. If [your county doesn’t] have a tax base, you don’t get it. And it puts in place a vicious cycle. The second part of it is people getting wastewater infrastructure that simply isn’t working. The irony in it is that the individual-owned sites are where people are criminalized, because those systems don’t work or they fail. But an engineering firm can be approved by the state of Alabama to design systems that can fail and people still get sick, but instead of the people that authorized them — the regulators — being held accountable, it is usually these small families. And that is so unfair because it’s not equal justice. The injustice is if one comes from a place of privilege, then of course they’re not held accountable. But the people who can’t afford it, didn’t design it, and can’t find a system that works properly, they’re held responsible for it.
How did you get connected with theEqual Justice Initiative, which is known more for its work on death penalty work and education around America’slegacy of lynchings?
Well, EJI is about justice and Bryan Stevenson writes the forward for my book because he also grew up in a household in Delaware where the wastewater infrastructure was failing. He talks about times when he and his brother had to pump out the septic system to keep it from flowing back into the house. So I think that’s what got his attention when he saw what I was doing and asked to be supportive. EJI took a case in 2014 where a pastor in Pike County, Alabama, had been arrested because they bought a church that had a failing wastewater system. The health department used all of its means to bring down the force of the the criminal justice system on this person who had never been arrested before. EJI was able to help get those charges thrown out. Were it not for EJI involvement, he would have a criminal record for something that was out of his control.
Lowndes County has this stigma now about being impoverished and now flush with wastewater problems, but its history is much richer than that.
It’s where the original Black Panther party started. Lowndes County had a sharecroppers movement that preceded the modern day civil rights movement that was put down by violence. People don’t know that W.E.B. Dubois actually spent a year in Lowndes County documenting the struggle over labor, and some even say it may have even influenced his philosophy. He was at Atlanta University at the time and his study was so explosive that the Department of Labor would not allow it to see the light of day.
I went to a gathering that takes place every year with the Episcopal church, where they bring together people from around the world as part of this journey to retrace the steps ofJonathan Daniels, who was killed in Lowndes County. He was an Episcopal seminarian who was killed in the voting rights movement. They had people there from the West Bank and Bethlehem, and I remember a young man from Bethlehem stood up and said, “We get our strength from Lowndes County, because we know its history.” That was so powerful to me. Skip Gates once said that one of the most important things about the voting rights movement that people don’t know about is theLowndes County Freedom Organization — and how former sharecroppers and black landowners got together along with students from SNCC to actually put the Voting Rights Act into practice by putting together their own political party and running candidates. That set the stage for them ultimately winning offices in Lowndes County, despite the horrors that we’ve had to survive, and still have to survive. It was calledBloody Lowndes because of the use of racial terror.
Now that you all have discovered hookworm disease there, what will it take to turn the corner on this?
We haven’t turned the corner on this yet because I think that as long as the state keeps instituting the same type of remedies that have helped to create these problems, we’re not going to turn the corner. But the bright side of it is that we’re on the course of working on wastewater solutions that can be used across the country. Lowndes County is not the only one. There’s a place called Centreville, Illinois — I saw more raw sewage from people’s toilet and toilet paper on the ground there than I’ve seen in Lowndes County. People have been reaching out to me from around the country, especially lately telling me about these issues. The story that hasn’t been told is that septic systems are failing everywhere. If people get septic systems, they’re going to work up to a moment when they start pushing sewage back into people’s homes. It’s a short-term solution. We have to really work on the long-term technological solutions that will be able to deal with what we have, because it’s not only an environmental justice issue, it’s a climate issue as well. These water tables are rising. And some septic systems are contaminating the water, especially when people have wells.
The good news out of Lowndes County is that now there are people thinking about what kind of technologies we need to address this long-term and also connecting this to global issues around water and sanitation. We can create something that is sustainable that’s not detrimental to the environment or the people that live there, not extremely expensive, but something that can ultimately benefit mankind and womankind — that can protect us from diseases like the coronavirus. You cantest wastewater and know at least two to three weeks ahead where the outbreaks are going to be.
We’re just talking about toilets and plumbing. We have so many billionaire tech geniuses right now, who you’d think would have already come up with a solution for such a basic problem.
Well, first they had to admit that there was a problem. But It’s getting to the point where they can no longer deny it anymore. I went to Florida recently for a conference in Gainesville at the law school and I thought I’d be the only person talking about septic systems. Everybody that got up before me was talking about septic systems and how it’s contaminating the water. I found out about Miami where they have built so many homes using septic systems, but they’re failing because of sea level rise. That’s why climate change is also a factor, because if the sea level rises, the water tables are going to rise. It’s happening around the country already. There are places outside of New York that have problems with septic systems.
What has been your secret in getting wealthy people and people from the city to care about this issue?
I haven’t really had that problem. For the most part, when people see it — maybe because of the fact that they’re able to make that trek and want to go see it — it means that they have a level of consciousness before they show up. And that’s why they reach out. But I have had people come who I thought would be partisan or try to spin it a certain way, and they’ve actually become part of the fight for justice as well. There’s Kat Taylor, Tom Steyer’s wife, who came out and saw it firsthand for herself who also has gone and taken me to some other communities in the central Valley in California to try to work together on solving this problem. The way I explain it to everyone is that we don’t just deal with these as environmental justice problems — especially problems like the waste problem, whether it’s the waste coming from septic tanks and human feces, or whether it’s the waste coming from hog farms in Eastern Carolina — what we need to be concerned about is that the next coronavirus could start right here in the United States of America. We have the wherewithal, we just have to develop the technology. Until we develop that, all of us are at risk. So the crisis is much larger than just waste, and none of us like the situation that we’re in, but if we don’t change the way we do things, we’re going to to be in more situations like this. It’s no longer beneficial to look the other way and think that is something that is just contained over there, because it’s not in my backyard. What could come out of this could impact all of us.
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