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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Fighting the Stench of Poverty

Environmental activist Catherine Coleman Flowers stands over a pool of raw sewage outside a home in White Hall, Alabama (Photo by Bob Miller for Al Jezeera America)


While growing up in rural Lowndes County, Alabama, the cradle of the civil rights struggles, she and her parents fought for her neighbors’ civil right to be first-class citizens.

Today, Catherine Coleman Flowers fights for her neighbors’ human right not to have raw sewage spilling into their backyards.

“Despite the fact that a lot of people that live in Lowndes County are descendants of people who may have come to this country as slaves, Lowndes County citizens have always fought for justice, the right to participate in the democratic process, and for economic opportunity going back to the sharecroppers’ union,” Flowers told The Verge (November 13).

“This fight, in terms of people stepping out front and sharing their personal struggles with wastewater with the world, it’s just a continuation of that history of being on the forefront of positive change that can benefit everyone.”

In Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, which was released last week, Flowers wants to inspire the young as she was inspired by her parents whom she likened to jailhouse lawyers who opened up their homes to civil rights activists such as Stokely Carmicheal, who formed an independent Black political party called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members such as John Jackson and Willie “Mukasa” Ricks.

Last month, the MacArthur Foundation awarded the “Erin Brockovich of Wastewater” its “genius” grant of $625,000 over a period of five years to help her promote her cause.

Flowers also has been named to President-elect Joe Biden’s task force on climate change.

Finally, people are listening to the former history teacher, who is in her 60s.

In 2002, after returning home from studying and working elsewhere, she founded the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprises. She devoted much of her work to trying to be heard by bureaucracies.

An estimated 90 percent of households in predominantly black Lowndes County have failing or inadequate wastewater systems, the center found in a door-to-door survey in 2011 and 2012, Flowers wrote in The New York Times (November 13).

The organization worked to find the money for septic tanks and to advocate for those criminalized in sanitation issues, according to Reckon (October 20).

“I found out that the state health department was arresting people who could not afford on-site sanitation,” Flowers said in Inside Climate News (July 10). “They were going after the poorest people, instead of going after big polluters who were also dispensing wastewater, usually into the river or bodies of water, but weren’t being prosecuted.”

The state government threatened poor 37 families with eviction or arrest. But Flowers fought back. She negotiated with officials, including then-Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, to end unfair enforcement policies, and she enlisted the Environmental Protection Agency’s help to fund septic systems, according to Grist.

Then, the environmental activist suffered a mysterious rash on her legs and body. Doctors could not diagnose the malady. Flowers deduced that it had to do with the day she wore a dress to visit a family whose yard had “a hole in the ground full of raw sewage.

“I began to wonder if Third World conditions might be bringing Third World diseases to our region,” Flowers writes in Waste.

She was right.

Hookworm, a worm parasite believed to be eradicated in the United States, was rampant in Lowndes County. The infection results in iron deficiency, cognitive delays, stunted growth in children and anemia in all ages, according to Baylor College of Medicine (September 6, 2017). It occurs in impoverished areas with poor sewage and sanitation due to fecal contamination.

Flowers approached Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College. The school worked with Flowers’ organization to conduct house-to-house enrollment for the study. It had the expertise, and she had the trust of the community. They collected 55 stool samples. Among 24 households, 42.4 percent revealed exposure to raw sewage within their home. A surprising 34.5 percent tested positive for hookworm.

“It’s shocking that we continue to have these infections of poverty in the United States,” said Dr. Rojelio Mejia, assistant professor of pediatrics at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor.

“The depth and breadth of poverty and disease in Texas, the Gulf Coast and the southern United States have been consistently underestimated,” said Hotez. “However, my estimates indicate that up to 12 million or more Americans now live with a neglected tropical disease. The new findings of persistent hookworm infection among the poor living in the American South help to confirm my many concerns about neglected tropical diseases in the U.S. Clearly, extreme poverty is an important factor, but we also need to look at the effects of climate change and other 21st-century forces.”

Mejia’s team notified the families that tested positive for hookworm infection, which is treatable with medication. However, fixing the sewage problem is the only way to end the worm’s lifecycle or the parasite will reinfect hosts. Mejia hopes that his next study will focus on having sewage lines or septic systems, or cheap alternatives, built in these areas.

Flowers said: “The irony is that this study illustrates how environmental justice, poverty and climate change have intersected to produce inequality along the famous Selma to Montgomery March trail. We are thankful to the National School of Tropical Medicine for validating our long-held belief that raw sewage within the United States is currently yielding tropical diseases.

“Now, the nation can no longer look away.”

Two million Americans lack access to wastewater services, running water and indoor plumbing, according to a 2019 report by the non-profit groups, US Water Alliance and Dig Deep. There were 328.2 million Americans at that time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In The Verge (November 13), Flowers described three different problems for wastewater in the clay soil, which does not drain well because it comprises mostly fine mineral particles which stick together:

“One problem is where people don’t have infrastructure at all. They have a toilet in their home. They flush the toilet, and the effluent from the toilet, the wastewater, goes through a PVC pipe into a pit or ditch that they dig or just runs out on top of the ground. Those are people that can’t afford that infrastructure because this is in places like Lowndes County, where it’s so expensive. One of the families that we’re working with, recently, found that it was going to cost $20,000 (more than their annual income) for a wastewater treatment system because when they went down 25 inches, they struck water.

“The second problem that I’ve seen is when people can afford it, but when they buy it, it doesn’t work. Whenever there is a lot of rain or extreme weather conditions, the systems break down. And when they break down, they push the sewage back into the home.

“The third problem that I’ve seen are big systems and very expensive systems that have been put in place – with wastewater treatment plants and lagoon systems – that fail. And when they fail, again, we have raw sewage either coming into the building or it’s out on top of the ground. And, in some of those instances, we’ve seen that people are paying wastewater treatment fees and the systems are not working.”

Flowers’ newly renamed Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice will educate people on how Lowndes County documented the wastewater problem, she said in Inside Climate News. It also will help policymakers determine effective structural changes to avert the problem. And it will work with engineers and scientists to develop affordable and accessible wastewater technology that takes into account climate change.

Also, there is work specific to COVID-19.

“We’ve also found out, during this coronavirus (pandemic), that you can actually test wastewater to determine the level of contagion in the community, so our work is taking on a whole new area that we’ve never thought about before,” said Flowers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in collaboration with other federal agencies, are initiating the National Wastewater Surveillance System in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the CDC (October 23). The data will help public health officials better understand the extent of COVID-19 infections in communities. Wastewater can be tested for RNA genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19.

“While SARS-CoV-2 can be shed in the feces of individuals with COVID-19, there is no information to date that anyone has become sick with COVID-19 because of direct exposure to treated or untreated wastewater,” according to the CDC.

In The Verge, Flowers said that she is concerned. Most of the people in her community cannot work from home or socially distance themselves from other household members when they get home.

“I can tell you that Lowndes County has the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rate (1 in 13) in the state of Alabama and also the highest per capita COVID death rate in the state of Alabama (1 in 335). I pray that there are no more deaths because I know too many people that have died as a result.”

One of those deaths was of Pamela Sue Rush, who testified on sewage problems before Congress in June 2018.

“Pam, who was a 42-year-old mother with a cautious smile when I met her in 2018, greeted visitors at the door of the faded blue, single-wide trailer she shared with her two children,” Flowers wrote in a piece for The New York Times (November 14). “Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as famous activists like Jane Fonda and the Rev. Dr. William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign, traveled down the dusty road to Pam’s home, where they saw a picture that was hard to shake.

“The trailer barely protected Pam and her children, now 11 and 16, from the elements. Gaps in the walls had let opossums and other wild animals squeeze in, so Pam had stuffed rags in the holes and set traps outside the front door. She cautioned visitors to watch their step on the sloping, flimsy floors, which were soft underfoot.

“Pam did her best to make a comfortable home for her children. . . . The trailer was musty, poorly ventilated and dimly lit, with water-stained popcorn ceilings and exposed electrical wiring. But Pam had arranged an old sofa and chairs in a cozy semicircle around the television set and hung framed prints on the mildew-streaked walls. A mobile of three brown-skinned angels, bearing the words ‘Angels live here,’ hung from the wall.

“She shared a bed with her daughter, whose bedroom was uninhabitable because of mold that thrived in the damp environment. The child suffered from asthma and needed a CPAP machine to breathe at night. Her son slept on the couch.

“At the rear of the home, overlooking a small yard and dense woods, was a collapsed deck. Beside the deck, a pipe spewed raw sewage onto the ground. The toilet paper and feces told a story of the lost American dream much more clearly than Pam ever could. The pride and independence of homeownership came to rest there, in that stinking pool.

“Why didn’t she move, people sometimes asked me. A look at her mortgage papers provided one reason. She had paid about $113,000 for the trailer in 1995, with an interest rate of 10 percent. Twenty-four years later, she still owed $13,000, but the trailer was worthless. Despite this, payments came due each month. A septic tank was out of the question. New ones in Lowndes County, with its impermeable soil, can easily cost more than $15,000. That’s an example of the structural poverty that traps good, hard-working people where they are.”

“. . . After two years of working with Pam, my non-profit had finally raised the money to help her buy a new mobile home. We were all anticipating her move with joy, but the pandemic had put it on hold.

“Then, like a heat-seeking missile, the coronavirus zeroed in on Pam. When she developed breathing problems in June, she was admitted to a Selma hospital and, then, transferred to the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham. That’s where she fought for her life for a few days before she lost her battle on July 3. The official cause of death was COVID-19, but the underlying causes of her suffering were poverty, environmental injustice, climate change, race, and health disparities. They would never be listed on a death certificate.”

Flowers advised environmentalists to visit the homes of people like Pam, who are affected by the lack of proper sewage disposal, and not drive through communities.

“You have to go there and, actually, see it first-hand. How the heart of the fossil fuel industry is there and how Louisiana is losing so many football fields of land every day (is) due to climate change,” she said in Inside Climate News. “Or, go down to Miami to areas like Little Haiti that’s being gentrified by climate change, where people think they’re woke are moving away from Miami Beach, but they’re displacing people in Little Haiti. Or go to places like Centreville, Illinois, where people are experiencing flooding and wastewater being in all their homes and basements and in their yards. . . . All of this is happening as a result of sea-level rise.

“When I went to COP 21 (the Paris Climate Conference) when the (Paris Agreement) was being negotiated, a lot of the nations that were currently suffering from climate change were concerned about mitigation. The U.S. and some of the people that were involved in negotiation didn’t want to acknowledge that fully because they felt that they would be financially responsible. But they are financially responsible. And we have to find a way in which to make sure that those communities that are suffering right now don’t have to wait until 2035 or 2050 – that they’re also on the frontlines of getting the help they need to adjust and be resilient."

“I think that the future, whether I get to live to see it or not, is bright because young people are going to be writing that future. Young people are going to be writing those laws changing a lot of what’s going on.”

Flowers told Reckon that she did not know that her parents’ legacy would be the foundation of her own.

“What gives me validity were those people from the past who I look back on now and see how significant they were to history. I just didn’t know it at the time.”

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