Catherine Flowers takes on ‘America’s Dirty Secret’
Environmental activist Catherine Coleman Flowers has spent much of her life devoted to uncovering and eradicating what she calls “America’s dirty secret” – the lack of adequate waste and water infrastructure in rural communities, leading to disease and worsening already daunting socio-economic barriers. A 2020 MacArthur Fellow and founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, Flowers grew up in Lowndes County in Alabama’s “Black Belt.” She recently spoke with Spotlight about her work and her new book, “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret.” The transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’re a native of Lowndes County, right?
Yes, I was actually born in Birmingham but I grew up in Lowndes County. My father was born and raised in Lowndes County and he took the family back to Lowndes County in the 1960s. I went to elementary and high school there and it’s my home.
And how long has this particular issue been one that you’ve been focused on?
I’ve been focused on this issue since 2002, so a good part of my life has been focused on this issue. I always knew this issue existed but I thought it had been rectified when I moved back to the area in 2000. I didn’t realize how widespread it was and how much of a threat to public health until I started to delve a little more deeply into it and saw who was being impacted by it and why.
For our readers Catherine, could you give us an overview of the problems that you’re focused on?
The problem that I’m focused on is the problem of inadequate wastewater infrastructure in poor and rural communities. Primarily, what we’re seeing is either communities that never got wastewater infrastructure in the first place or people who have paid for on-site septic systems that are now failing. The third issue is people who are paying wastewater treatment fees for these treatment plants in small towns that have also failed, and, as a result, they have sewage coming back into their homes or on their property.
What is the story that you’re telling in your book?
In my book, I’m really talking about how I came to this issue. It’s really the evolution of an activist, the evolution from being a young person exposed to the civil rights movement through my parents and their activism to understanding the connections and the intersectionality between civil rights, environmental justice, climate justice, social justice and how I came to do what I’m doing right now. I think there were steps along the way that prepared me for what we eventually found. The book also talks about how we should listen to people in those communities. I don’t talk about the politicians as much – that’s what people remember because those are known names – but more so about the people in the communities who shared information with us, who helped us to really understand this problem so that we could hopefully arrive at some long-term solutions.
This problem was always bad, but has become worse because of global warming, correct?
Yes, because those areas that we would have not normally known to be impacted by tropical illnesses are now seeing increased exposure to those illnesses. The study we did with Baylor would primarily have been in the South, because the South is where we have this semi-tropical weather. But now, with climate change, we’re starting to hear from people and see some of these tropical parasites are existing in other parts of the country that are further north. We’re also finding out that the infrastructure is failing all over the country and not just in the South.
What are some other places, just as examples?
California’s Central Valley. I’ve actually seen it first-hand in Centerville, Illinois and I understand that it’s in other parts of Illinois and Missouri. I know that it’s in Alaska, I know that it’s in Puerto Rico, I know that it’s in New York state. It’s in Georgia, it’s in North Carolina – it’s everywhere. Anywhere you have septic systems, people are dealing with failures. I don’t know of a state where they can say, oh now, we don’t have that. We also would like to hear from a state that doesn’t have straight piping; I think anywhere you have a rural community you’re probably likely to find some kind of straight piping, particularly if they are poor – Black, Latinx, white or Indigenous.
And then you have the pandemic hitting and for people who are already dealing with these issues, it’s just overwhelming.
It is overwhelming and I’m sure that we will find out when we start peeling back the layers when this pandemic ceases that the losses were even greater in those areas where people had these failing infrastructures, particularly wastewater. One of the things that we have found since COVID has ravaged the world is that in some places, the way they are controlling infections is through testing wastewater.
Is hookworm the primary problem that’s coming from this or are there other parasites?
There are other parasites – there’s a long list of other parasites that we’ve found.
On a happier note, you’ve been doing some work with Columbia on a possible solution to this problem. Tell us about that.
What we’re hoping to do, not just with Columbia but with other projects that we’re working on, is that we want to shift the engineering paradigm, where people who are sitting at the table helping to design the solution are the people also living with the problem. But we also want to partner with some entities here in the U.S. who have been doing state-of-the-art, advanced work, like NASA and the Department of Defense, to see if we can, together with people from the community using principles of environmental justice, find innovations and solutions that will work. We think that can shift the entire way we treat wastewater in the not-too-distant future. Our timeline is to find something that works within 5 years that could be readily available in stores like Home Depot or Loew’s or a hardware store where someone can go and buy the devices and hire a technician to come and put it in their home. Hopefully, then when the wastewater comes out, it’s no longer wastewater. The contamination has been removed and people can reuse and recycle.
Is there a model that you’ve seen that brings community input and gives those in the community a place at the table?
I haven’t seen that – I think this is a new model that we’re constructing. And I’m doing this based on my experience as a country girl. One of my friends who works with me talks about her cousin, who works on a farm, and they have farm equipment there that is so old, they can’t find the parts for it. So, this young man, who is not an engineering student, who didn’t even go to college, is actually fabricating pieces to keep this machinery running. I just remember growing up in the country, to keep a car running you had to do all kinds of things. We can use that type of ingenuity to tell us, this how we can solve this problem.
And that potentially becomes an economic opportunity for the community as well, right?
Yes it does. It becomes an economic opportunity for the community, it becomes an economic opportunity for the state of Alabama and it could also be an opportunity to bring about and manufacture a long-term solution, and a solution that takes into account climate change. Anything that’s being constructed now, or anything that was constructed a year ago, and does not take into account climate change, it’s going to fail. We saw that with Texas in the last few weeks because when people were planning, you have climate deniers who are involved in that process and don’t understand the extreme weather events like snow in San Antonio and temperatures that meant that people were freezing to death in Texas. Who would have thought that five years ago? Two years ago? Last year? And now we know we’re going to have to build our infrastructure better than we’ve done it before. And it’s not just with the energy grid – I had people writing me from Texas saying, ‘Catherine, I can’t flush my toilet.’
You were on one of the advisory committees for the new administration, correct?
Yes, it was actually the compromise committee when Senator (Bernie) Sanders (I-VT) withdrew from the race. He and Biden were meeting and they put together these task forces that came up with recommendations for the administration. Because of Senator Sanders’ visit to Lowndes County, I was nominated by him to be on the climate change task force. I just recall in that conversation, he said, ‘Catherine, I want you to bring environmental justice home.’
Does it feel like this issue in particular is on the new administration’s radar screen?
I do feel like it’s high on the radar screen because I’ve seen in the executive order on climate and I’ve seen in the recommendations references to wastewater. Usually, when people talk about water, they don’t talk about wastewater. They just automatically assume that it was taken care of. They never talk about sanitation. So now, when people have discussions about water, I’m quick to mention it but I’m hearing more and more people including it. I do think the new administration is paying attention and there’s two people in the administration who served on the same task force with me. One of those was Gina McCarthy, who is now the climate czar for the U.S., who has the president’s ear, and the other is former Secretary of State John Kerry, who is our climate envoy.