Environmental Injustice in Rural America

America has a secret, and environmentalist Catherine Coleman Flowers wants to spill the dirt. 

Ever the activist, Flowers puts her memoir, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, to work defining the issue of environmental injustice — specifically how low-income people become trapped in intolerable living conditions. Flowers asserts that polluted air, tainted water and untreated sewage not only make people sick but also prevent entire communities from thriving, therefore contributing to a system of structural poverty that traps people where they are for generations. 

After leaving the rural Alabama of her childhood for an education, Flowers returned to “Bloody” Lowndes County (named for its violent and racist past) and soon found her mission: to raise awareness around the Black communities that exist without adequate wastewater treatment or even running water.  

But before she takes us to Lowndes County, Flowers must first frame the environmental issues today’s residents face within the context of the region’s racially segregated past. “Maybe it’s the former history teacher in me, but I believe that you can’t understand how rural Alabama wound up with raw sewage in people’s yards without first learning about how African Americans were brought here as slaves to work the soil,” explains Flowers. 

In the first four chapters, Flowers weaves a narrative involving how America’s legacy of racial disparity has contributed to today’s environmental injustice, with her own career trajectory from student activist to the “Erin Brockovich of Sewage.” At times, Flowers’ timeline is tedious, weighed down by a precise account of who, what, where and when, but readers will appreciate this former history teacher’s personal connections and anecdotes sprinkled throughout. Some gems were new to even Flowers herself: “Phloy, who lived next door, was among the first fifty-six Black nurses admitted to the U.S. Army Nurses Corps in 1941. I’d never known that Black women served as officers in World War II until I saw a picture of her in uniform with bars on her shoulder.”

In the second half of the book, Flowers introduces readers to the stark realities of America’s rural poverty. We accompany her as she escorts high-profile visitors to visit the impacted families in their homes in Lowndes County. Flowers understands that once a lawmaker, journalist, or fundraising ally has seen a child’s backyard flecked with toilet paper with raw sewage clinging to the long grass, she finds that she often has their support for life. 

Readers meet the ordinary people living in Lowdnes County, like Shar, a low-income, pregnant single mother. Shar is trying to raise a family without county infrastructure and services to treat the wastewater generated from their own toilet. As a result, the untreated filth actually runs straight into the backyard. 

Flowers recounts the visit to Shar’s home, a single-wide trailer on a five-acre lot owned by her mother, “She took us outside around to the back of her home, where sewage was flowing into a hole in the ground by the back door. Feces, toilet paper, and water were near the top of the hole [and]…the pit was teeming with mosquitos.” 

Shar earned, on average, $700 a month. Recently, her family had to pay $800 for a perc test (a percolation test to measure the rate water drains through soil) just to keep this single mother out of jail. Now, Shar is being threatened with prison again if she’s unable to find the $10,000 to install the required septic tank. “Threatening a young mother with arrest was not a solution,” Flowers observed wryly.

Flowers argues that not only is this the reality of underserved American communities, but these vulnerable families are being further victimized with arrests and imprisonment for failure to remedy. Yet, because the cost of fixing or replacing a septic tank is more than these families could ever afford, they are trapped in a cycle of poverty. 

Readers learn that these unsanitary conditions and the associated health concerns (even the return of the parasitic hookworm) are what public health experts might expect to see in developing countries. These conditions are not even limited to Alabama’s Lowdnes County, but found across America in rural, poor, and primarily minority communities such as those in Central California, coastal Florida, Alaska and Native American reservations in the West.

Therefore, Flowers’ message is both an urgent and a unique contribution to the discussions on racial justice and environmental crises occurring today.  Catherine Coleman Flowers’ account of her activist career cements her as an indefatigable advocate for people who deserve better. And as their voice, Flowers reminds readers that history proves, when progress comes, these movements often fail to consider the perspectives of the poor. 

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret
By Catherine Coleman Flowers 
The New Press
Published November 17, 2020