In March 2021, Catherine Coleman Flowers was appointed by the Biden administration to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which will help guide the executive branch’s response to climate change and environmental injustice.

Flowers’ work in environmental justice began 20 years ago in rural Lowndes County, Alabama, where she grew up. There, the region’s dense clay soils can cause septic systems to fail. Repairing or replacing a septic system is prohibitively expensive for many residents, so some people find themselves with no alternative but to straight-pipe waste onto the ground. Even for those who can afford the expense, it may serve only as a temporary solution.

She says sanitation inequities are not unique to Lowndes County. They exist throughout the country — particularly in low-income, rural communities, where insufficient municipal infrastructure and failing on-site septic systems can result in hazardous sewage backing up into yards, homes, and waterways. 

These problems are exacerbated by climate change, because increasingly intense precipitation and rising groundwater levels make it more likely that wastewater systems will back up and flood. 

Flowers is working to raise awareness of the problem’s scope and severity — and demand equitable solutions. She is the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing wastewater management problems in marginalized rural communities. Her book, “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” was released in 2020.

Yale Climate Connections spoke with Flowers in a wide-ranging conversation about her work. 

On why she calls the issue ‘America’s dirty secret’ and the need to highlight the problem: 

Catherine Coleman Flowers: I was inspired to write the book because every time I talked about this problem, people wanted to pretend like it didn’t exist. I call it “America’s dirty secret” because we have been shamed into not discussing these problems. And because we have been shamed into not discussing these problems, people don’t know about it.

It compromises the health of people, [and] with health care disparities, it makes it worse. When you have extreme poverty, as in Lowndes County, you have the possibility of tropical diseases that generally are not expected to exist in wealthier nations. For example, we have found evidence of hookworm and other tropical parasites in Lowndes County.

And because we’re the wealthiest nation in the world, most people don’t even believe that this exists, or didn’t know that it existed. So I wanted to be able to show how this problem was just the culmination of all the structural inequalities that exist in this country that we need to dismantle. 

On the situation in Lowndes County: 

The wastewater problem is a problem throughout the United States. However, it has been brought out in the open because of what is happening in Lowndes County, Alabama. 

I think Lowndes County, Alabama — which has a history of resistance and a history of making profound changes in the voting rights movement — has also been historic in terms of exposing the problems of inadequate wastewater treatment and inadequate wastewater infrastructure in the United States of America. 

The point is simply that the infrastructure that we’re currently using is not working, and it’s failing in many areas.

In Lowndes County, we have three problems that exist throughout the U.S.: One is that some people have straight piping, which means when they flush their toilets it goes out onto the ground. The second problem is that people have on-site septic systems that are failing, and when those systems fail, then it brings the sewage back into the house. And then the third problem is that people are paying for wastewater treatment with small treatment plants in small towns that are also failing, and that brings sewage either into their homes or into the yards. 

Climate change is making it worse because there’s more rainfall, especially in this area. If we get a lot of rain you’re going to see more and more failures. And then we also have sea-level rise [in coastal areas]. So with climate change, we’re going to find more and more water tables are rising, and not just in Alabama. 

On the pervasiveness of the problem and the need for more documentation: 

The government doesn’t have a clear understanding of how many people across the United States have wastewater problems. So the first thing you can do before you can start talking about real solutions anywhere is finding out where the problems are. Otherwise we’re playing whack-a-mole — you know, while people are looking at Lowndes County, it could be in Connecticut. it could be in Massachusetts. It’s in Long Island. It’s in Alaska. It’s in Hawaii. It’s in Puerto Rico. It’s in Texas.

So we have embarked on a project with The Guardian — a year-long project — where we plan to document areas across the United States that have wastewater problems. We have to really quantify this problem so we can find a solution before your sewage ends up in your bathtub or in your house or your backyard. So what we’re doing is trying to document and map it and in doing so, we can get this to policymakers who can try to once and for all address this issue. When we document where these problems exist, then we can have some real sustainable policy solutions to address it.

On potential solutions: 

One of the initial things that can happen is where there are municipal systems that work, especially large treatment plants, to extend the opportunity to people in those areas [who don’t have wastewater treatment] to connect. 

The next step is, where there are systems that do exist but don’t work, we need to rebuild these systems. There’s old infrastructure that wasn’t working in the first place that’s even worse now. And we shouldn’t always wait until there’s a crisis, like Flint, before we do something. And a lot of people don’t think that it’s coming to their backyard because it’s not there yet. But it may very well end up in their bathtubs too. So that’s why we have to document where this takes place. 

And then we need to develop new technologies that deal with our new reality of climate change. We’re trying to come up with ways in which to deal with this and hopefully to inspire — among university students around the country — the desire to find technological solutions to deal with the current reality and what to expect in the future based on climate change projections. 

I’m working with people from around the country on solutions, and even some people right here in Alabama. 

We can’t keep putting these systems in places that are already impacted by climate change — especially with sea level rise and groundwater levels increasing. We’ve got to do something different. If not, we’re going to continue to have failures and we’re going to continue to have problems.

Also see: Heavier downpours strain septic systems in some rural areas

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Sarah Kennedy

Sarah Kennedy is an editor and content producer with ChavoBart Digital Media, a production firm with a focus on scientific and environmental media. Her work on Climate Connections includes developing story...