Waste: an environmental justice issue we should be talking about


Remember when Flint, Michigan garnered international attention because water in the city was making people sick? Well, there are communities like that around the county and the world. And while Flint gained attention because of its failing infrastructure, there are places where water and sewage infrastructure is absent.

“Too many Americans live without any affordable means of cleanly disposing of the waste from their toilets, and must live with the resulting filth,” writes Catherine Coleman Flowers, an environmental health advocate, in her book “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” published by The New Press in November. (Read an excerpt here.)

“They lack what most Americans take for granted: the right to flush and forget,” Flowers continues.

For nearly two decades, Flowers, a recent awardee of the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” has been bringing attention to failing water and waste sanitation infrastructure in rural areas.

I spoke with Flowers in mid-December over Skype. Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Deonna Anderson: You are the woman mentioned in the title of your book, which chronicles your life and also your work as an environmental justice champion. For those who have not read the book, can you give an overview of what the “dirty secret” is in the title?

Catherine Coleman Flowers: The dirty secret is that there are many Americans living with waste that comes from their toilets, whether it is through straight piping, in which [waste from] the toilets comes straight out on top of the ground or into a pit, or whether it is through a failing septic system, which means that when it fails, there’s sewage from their homes, usually from their toilets, of course. I just want to be graphic because that’s what it is. 

And it ends up either out on top of the ground or comes back into the home, sometimes into their bathtubs. Or they’re part of these community systems that are supposed to be managed but were built in a way in which they were not sustainable. And consequently, people have sewage coming back into their homes or into their yards.

Anderson: Throughout “Waste,” you write about the tours that you take people on to see all the waste and the lack of infrastructure in Lowndes County, Alabama. And that’s where you grew up. First, how many people have you taken on these tours over the years?

Flowers: That’s a good question… In some cases, it would be one or two people and in other cases, there may be groups. So I would say on the small number, maybe close to 100 people, at least, that I’ve actually taken around to see this firsthand over the years, because I’ve been doing this since 2002.

Catherine Flowers guides Senator Cory Booker through Lowndes County, Alabama, as part of his 2017 environmental justice tour.


Anderson: What has been the tangible impact of people going to see what happens in Lowndes County?

Flowers: Well, first of all, this is not on a lot of people’s radar. When I wanted to talk about this before, I couldn’t get media interest. I was told that this was not sexy, nobody would be interested in it. But since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to speak before Congress, active members of Congress, the Senate, who’ve actually come to Lowndes County to see for themselves and have been working on policies to try to address this issue in rural communities.

I had the opportunity to visit Geneva, because the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty came to Lowndes County and made it a major global issue. The first real coverage we get from it from a newspaper actually came from The Guardian. So now there are other people that are interested as well.

And the fact that I can even write a book about it. … I’m thankful to The New Press for giving me an opportunity to tell this story. I’m excited that we have seen and have heard from people from around the country that are indeed interested in knowing about this, and also people that are interested in what the potential solutions are.

Anderson: That’s actually a really good segue to my next question. Towards…

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