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Catherine Coleman Flowers Fights For Sanitation As A Human Right

Catherine Coleman Flowers
Sewage builds up on properties in Lowndes County, Alabama, where only twenty percent of residents have access to the municipal sewage system.

Lowndes County, Alabama covers more than 700 square miles in the south-central portion of the state. It is part of the Black Belt, a region with dense soil that was once the site of thriving cotton plantations. The area declined rapidly during industrialization, and the chalky, clay soil that was once the key to thriving cotton fields, became a disaster for sewage systems. To this day, large swaths of Lowndes County residents have either inadequate or no septic system, which leads to a wide range of environmental and public health issues.

It is in this context that Catherine Coleman Flowers began her journey in environmental justice. She is the founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise Community Development and an internationally recognized advocate for human rights and water sanitation. Host Frank Stasio talks with Catherine Coleman Flowers, the Franklin Humanities Institute practitioner in residence at Duke University, about how the legacy of racism impacts her county to this day.

Interview Highlights From A Conversation With Catherine Coleman Flowers:

On the soil in the “Black Belt” region
The soil that once made it valuable to white landowners, now causes trouble for current residents. The soil was excellent for planting crops, in particular cotton....Once slavery ended there wasn’t a lot to replace it. And as a result people that stayed in the area – there were no jobs, no investment in terms of infrastructure to keep people in the area. Even to the point that where they did have wastewater treatment, you can trace it back to those areas that were first inhabited largely by white populations. And even in the two towns that had wastewater infrastructure, it stopped, you know, where the black community started. So those legacies still exist to this day.

On why individuals are responsible for their own septic systems
We’re talking about poor communities where they don’t have the type of tax base that would support these types of things….It’s interesting because the paradigm is set up where you have to have the infrastructure in place to have the tax base. But if you can’t afford the tax base, then there’s no infrastructure. So as a result, nothing happens.

On returning to Lowndes County and the quest for environmental justice
I moved back to Lowndes County and that area in 2000. What I found is that you can’t recruit business and services into an area that has no infrastructure. And during that process I also found out that the residents were being arrested because they did not have on-site [septic] systems...they couldn’t afford them...The same soils that are good for planting are not good for onsite wastewater treatment...But when you have the type of soils that we have that hold water, engineered systems are necessary. And these systems can cost anywhere from $6,000 on up to $30,000 or more. And with people being poor, they can’t afford that… and after a period of time if they can’t afford it, the practice, at that time, was to go to file charges against them...So when I got involved, a number of people had been arrested for being unable to pay for an on-site system.

On the discovery of a hookworm outbreak
Around 2008 or so, I received a call from the health department about a young in a single-wide mobile home. She was pregnant. She already had one child who was autistic. She lived on her family’s property. Her mother had a house and a septic system, but she didn’t...They told me that they were going to arrest her and asked me to meet them at the site. I decided to go with a reporter from the Associated Press...the back of her home was a pit full of raw sewage. And it had rained...It was teeming with mosquitos...The mosquitos bit me. I had numerous bites...And then a few weeks later my body broke out in a rash, and I went to my doctor and asked her to test me to make sure I hadn’t caught anything...And I said, "Is it possible there is something here that doctors in the US are not testing for because they don’t expect it to be in the United States?"...I just knew that with climate change, it has been warmer than it used to be, raw sewage on the ground, that could mean disease. 

On why Lowndes County is a unique case of environmental injustice
This is where environmental justice and climate change intersect...The thing about Lowndes County that’s unique is that every living president has gone to Selma and passed through Lowndes County, and we still have this problem...In the richest country in the world. I think this is the most extreme form of inequality that anyone can point to, because we talk about Flint, and Flint was a travesty as well, but Flint was infrastructure that has failed. Lowndes County was no infrastructure at all.

On the necessity of the new Duke University collaboration to find solutions
We are forming a collaborative across many disciplinary areas at Duke where we’re working with students and faculty on finding potential solutions….financial solutions. It’s a multifaceted problem. You have communities where the money would typically come from USDA...Alabama has had a history of sending money back to USDA in Washington...The same thing is true in terms of EPA which provides money that could be helpful if it could be accessed...Typically the Black Belt regions have not benefited from it...Because the other part of this problem is that the technology that’s currently being employed doesn’t work...When it rains a lot, the raw sewage backs up into the house. So that’s still exposing families to these parasites and other potential diseases that one would not have to worry about if they had infrastructure that worked.

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Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.