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Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret

by Catherine Coleman Flowers

“We visit homes in the country with no means of wastewater treatment, because septic systems cost more than most people earn in a year and tend to fail anyway in the impervious clay soil. Families cope the best they can, mainly by jerry-rigging PVC pipe to drain sewage from houses and into cesspools outside. In other words, what goes into their toilets oozes outside into the woods or yards, where children and pets play. Pools of waste form breeding grounds for parasites and disease.”

Catherine Flowers is not talking about a third world country. She’s talking about places in the United States. It’s happening in rural places throughout our country, but also in urban areas: areas of poverty and most often, neighborhoods of people of color.

Catherine Coleman Flowers grew up in a poor neighborhood in Lowndes County, Alabama in the 1960s. She began her life as an activist, protesting conditions there as a high school student in an all-black school with systemic racist policies.

As a high school student, she was a Robert Kennedy Youth Fellow in DC. Her activism continued as she attended college at Alabama State University. She became part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and marched for voting rights and against lynching.

She was a teacher, fighting for the rights of black students in her classroom. She fought for her spouse’s rights when he was injured while in the army and accused of malingering.

Activism has been a constant part of her life wherever she lived. In 2000, she returned to Lowndes County, where she began working with various officials to find a way of helping the community. In visits to rural homes, this is what she typically found:

It was evident that the elderly woman’s septic tank was not working. Feces clung to the back of her home outside the bathroom. She could have received a citation and eventually been arrested for not being able to afford a septic system. A young man who lived with his wife and child had been cited for not having a septic tank was in danger of going to jail for ninety days and losing his job.

Flowers went to court with the young father and persuaded the judge to provide assistance instead of arresting him.

She went on to work with Alabama Senators and Representatives to find funding for septic tanks, getting an appropriation for the Black Belt Water and Sewer District. Still, it was eight years after the appropriation was approved before they saw any funds.

Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) invited Flowers to continue her work in partnership with EJI. They started with an intensive survey of the issue in Lowndes County:

“The survey revealed an array of wastewater issues affecting both homes and businesses across the county. Stunningly, they even occurred in townships that had wastewater treatment. … Stories about sewage running into bathtubs and flooding houses were common. The biggest revelation for us was that the wastewater treatment technology that people were required to buy to avoid arrest was failing at high rates.”

Flowers developed a mysterious illness as she worked in these homes. After reading a New York Times article titled “Tropical Disease: The New Plague of Poverty,” she contacted the author. He sent a parasitologist to Lowndes County and they determined that 34.5% of the people tested positive for hookworm, a disease that the US health department had thought eradicated in this country.

This is a very readable book, difficult to put down, as Flowers takes you through her life as an activist. It’s a must-read that demands follow-through to our Senators and Representatives in Washington, DC.

In 2019 Flowers established the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. In the concluding chapter, Flowers says: “Now I understand that the issue affects all kinds of people regardless of race or geography. You shouldn’t have raw sewage running back into your home or in your yard, period.”

I invite you to read this book and join me in writing to Congress and to the President, demanding that this be an essential part of rebuilding our infrastructure.

Marcia McLaughlin is a resident of Lacey, new to the community, formerly from King County and active there in fighting for housing for all.

This review was submitted as part of WIP’s $50 book review grant.

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