Author: Catherine Flowers

Catherine Coleman Flowers, NY Times Opinion

Mold, Possums and Pools of Sewage: No One Should Have to Live Like This

Before she died of Covid-19, Pamela Rush opened her home to show the world what poverty looks like.

Ms. Flowers is the author of the forthcoming “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” from which this essay is adapted.

My story starts in Lowndes County, Ala., a place that’s been called Bloody Lowndes because of its violent, racist history. It’s part of Alabama’s Black Belt, a broad strip of rich, dark soil worked and inhabited largely by poor Black people who, like me, are descendants of slaves. Our ancestors were ripped from their homes and brought here to pick the cotton that thrived in the fertile earth.

I grew up here, left to get an education and followed a range of professional opportunities. But something about that soil gets in your blood. I came back hoping to help good, hard-working people rise up out of the poverty that bogs them down like Alabama mud.

A big part of my work now is educating people about rural poverty and environmental injustice — about how poor people around the United States are trapped in conditions no one else would put up with. Those conditions — polluted air, tainted water, untreated sewage — make people sick.

I take activists, donors and politicians to see such conditions for themselves. We visit families crowded into run-down homes that lack heat in the winter and plumbing in all seasons. We visit homes with no means of wastewater treatment, because septic systems cost more than most people earn in a year and tend to fail anyway in the impervious clay soil. Families cope the best they can, mainly by jury-rigging PVC pipe to drain their toilet’s sewage into cesspools in the woods or yard outside, where they breed parasites and disease right by where children and pets play.

An estimated 90 percent of Lowndes households have failing or inadequate wastewater systems, although no one took the time to count until my organization, the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, conducted a door-to-door survey in 2011 and 2012.
The head of one of those households for years was Pamela Rush. 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. 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.

Sewage is still ‘America’s dirty secret’ – Catherine Flowers is fighting to change that -The Verge

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Doctors couldn’t diagnose the rash spreading across Catherine Flowers’ legs and body. But the activist thought it had to do with the day she wore a dress during a visit to a family whose yard featured “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 her new book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret.

She was right. That rash led to research that found that hookworm, a parasite thought to be pretty much dead in the US, was actually alive and well in the rural Alabama county where she grew up. Without working septic systems, residents were getting sick from raw sewage. Flowers has been on a mission to change things for her community ever since. She is now a recent MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” awardee, and she founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ).

With her latest book, available on November 17th, Flowers is expanding that fight to places across the US which lack the basic infrastructure that many city-dwellers take for granted. Two million Americans lack access to indoor plumbing, a 2019 report found, and that has huge implications for their health. The Verge spoke with Flowers about what she’s seen and how COVID-19 and climate change are piling on top of what’s already a shitty situation.

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‘We Need to Focus On People As Well’ – Kate B. Little Boy interviews Catherine Flowers

Catherine Coleman Flowers grew up in rural Lowndes County, Alabama — which is often called “Bloody Lowndes” for its violent, racist past — where her ancestors worked the land as slaves. This legacy has left its mark on her and on the county in the form of low wage jobs, lack of sanitation infrastructure, and enduring poverty.

In 2019, Coleman Flowers founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice to address the health and environmental conditions of rural Americans. From her time outside of Alabama she brings access to new partnerships and a willingness to cross race, class, and party lines to fight for poor, rural communities. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, a board member at Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, and rural development manager for the Equal Justice Initiative.

Speaking about her love for Alabama, Coleman Flowers once said, “There is something about that black dirt that gets into your soul.” With its searing legacy of slavery and the Civil War, her Southern roots are crucial to understanding Coleman Flowers’ love of community and the fight for rural environmental injustice that is her life’s work.

Coleman Flowers is the author of a forthcoming memoir, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize for a first book in the public interest. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama. In a recent Zoom conversation, Coleman Flowers shared with me her thoughts on rural poverty, race, and the environmental movement.

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Catherine Flowers Op-Ed for Alabama Voices: Give Alabamians the freedom of solar choice

Catherine Coleman Flowers – Special to the Advertiser

Photo: Solar panels on Ireland Farms in Alpine, Ala., are seen on Wednesday September 25, 2019. Mickey Welsh / Advertiser

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Imagine if every time you picked a peach off of your backyard tree, the government slapped you with a $10 tax – artificially increasing the price of your own fruit and driving you to buy grocery store peaches instead.

Well, that’s exactly the situation we face with electricity in Alabama.

Every Alabamian could make their own electricity cheaper and cleaner by putting solar on their roof. But Alabama Power has other ideas and insists on dumping a fee on solar users. And not a small fee either. It is a fee that could amount to $9,000 over the life of the system.

Such a fee punishes those that want to generate their own electricity, maintaining the company’s monopoly and keeping Alabamians locked into its services. Not only is it wrong to stifle Alabamians’ energy choices and what we do with our own roofs, but it’s also choking job creation in the state and hurting working families.

The Alabama Public Service Commission has the opportunity to eliminate these excessive fees – and they need to know that it’s what Alabamians want.

Alabama is number one – or at least running neck and neck with South Carolina – for the highest residential and commercial electricity rates in the region. Every month we pay more for our electricity, but we don’t have the option of generating our own electricity. This is a monopoly and it is un-American. Working families and small businesses deserve a more affordable choice.

But this fight isn’t just about the costs we all pay for our energy – it’s also about the health of our families. About one fifth of our electricity comes from dirty coal plants that spew unhealthy amounts of particulate matter, ozone and other pollution into the air we breathe. This pollution not only causes lung disease, including asthma and lung cancer, but has also helped make Birmingham the 14th most polluted city for particulate matter in the nation.

Most of all, this fight is about justice, environmental justice. First of all, this toxic air pollution doesn’t impact everyone equally.  African American Alabamians endure roughly twice the particulate matter air pollution that white Alabamians do. Second, as temperatures rise and cities swelter thanks to climate change, it’s the poor and people of color who suffer the most.

By turning from coal to clean energy like solar, we can not only clean up the air we breathe, but also help solve the climate crisis making our summers even hotter and threatening our families. Eliminating onerous solar fees is an important first step.

Now some will say that solar is really only for the rich.  But that isn’t the case in states that don’t have anti-solar policies.  In most of the country, people can lease solar panels and save money on their utility bills on day one, all without having to put any money down up front.

In Alabama, solar fees eliminate that savings. Worse, Alabama Power even claims it is illegal to lease solar panels. It’s time working-class Alabamians had the same opportunity to have cleaner, cheaper electricity that most other Americans enjoy.

Alabama Power parent company, Southern Company, also operates in Mississippi and Georgia, where it also proposed ways to make home solar unaffordable. Georgia, however, rejected a solar fee in 2013 and in Mississippi home solar owners fought back a Southern Company effort to block their ability to sell electricity back to the grid. As a result, Mississippi has 25% more solar jobs than Alabama and Georgia has 6 times more solar jobs than we do here. We should take heart from these victories and know that solar can win in Alabama as well.

In Alabama, we love competition. We love doing things ourselves, our way. Now it’s time for the Alabama Public Service Commission to open the state up for real competition on energy by getting rid of these fees. It’s time for the commission to let working Alabamians take control of their energy and generate their own electricity.

If you agree, please call Commission President Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh at (334) 242-5297 and tell her to get these fees off your roof.

Catherine Coleman Flowers

 

Catherine Coleman Flowers is Senior Fellow of Environmental Justice and Civic Engagement at the Center for Earth Ethics as well as the director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.

Learn More about Catherine’s work…

Alabama Voices: Two million Americans are in a water crisis; some of them are your neighbors

Catherine Flowers and George McGraw – Special to the Advertiser

Originally Published 9:00 AM EST Nov 22, 2019 to the Montgomery Advertiser

Scenes from Lowndes County, where only 20 percent of homes are connected to sewer systems.

In the Black Belt running through Alabama and Mississippi, the dark, clay soil that gives the area its name is notorious for causing water woes.

Rainwater pools on the ground, because it can’t penetrate the dense soil.  So does sewage.

In Bibb County, for instance, municipal wastewater is pumped into a lagoon where it should evaporate. When it rains, that wastewater overflows from the lagoon into people’s yards, spreading disease and smelling horribly.

In Lowndes County, only 20 percent of homes are connected to sewer systems.

But Bibb and Lowndes aren’t the only area in the Rural South – or the country – struggling to access reliable water and sanitation.

Recently two national non-profits, DIGDEEP and the US Water Alliance, released the first-ever report that pulls back the veil on America’s hidden water crisis. The report researchers visited Black Belt counties in Alabama and Mississippi, and five other regions across the US facing severe water access issues: the Four Corners area of the Southwest, the Central Valley of California, the Texas colonias, rural Appalachia, and Puerto Rico.

The report found something heartbreaking: there are at least two million Americans without hot and cold running water, a tap, shower, a working toilet, or basic wastewater service in their homes. That’s two million Americans who don’t have water to drink and cook with, or who have a toilet that simply empties through a PVC pipe into a puddle of sewage in their yard (if they have one at all).

This lack of basic water and sanitation access is causing a public health crisis. People repeatedly exposed to raw sewage are at greater risk for acute and long-term illness. Diseases once eradicated are resurfacing. A peer-reviewed study of residents in Lowndes County found 34.5 percent of participants tested positive for hookworm and other tropical parasites.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing uncovered by our research is that some parts of the country are actually going backwards. From 2000 to 2014 (the period with the last complete census data set) six states – Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Dakota – and Puerto Rico all saw increases in their populations without water and sanitation access.

This crisis affects Americans, who because of circumstances beyond their control, including geography, poverty, and discrimination, are unable to enjoy the same working taps and toilets most of us take for granted. The challenges vary by region and place. But across the country one thing holds true: this is a tremendous, invisible problem that our neighbors are often too ashamed to talk about. It is time to end the stigma and address it head-on.

First, America must begin measuring the water access gap. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Previously, the Census Bureau asked whether homes had a working flush toilet, but recently removed the question. One of our simplest recommendations in the new report is for census to revamp the question on complete plumbing access to again include toilets, and add questions on wastewater services, water quality, and cost.

Second, federal, state and local government need to reimagine outdated water regulations that don’t account for the extreme circumstances some Americans are living in. They need to dramatically increase and restructure funding to help these families and their communities build systems that work for them – especially in remote locations where traditional, centralized infrastructure may be impossible.

Finally, we need to support local organizations doing the hard work of bringing clean water to their neighbors right now. The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and the Mississippi Worker’s Center for Human Rights are two of those organizations. Operating in Alabama, the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice documents poverty and environmental crises, and works with affected communities to develop local solutions. The Mississippi Worker’s Center for Human Rights creates safer and healthier workplace conditions, including water access and sanitation, through education and training. The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice seeks to improve access to clean air, water, and soil in marginalized rural communities by influencing policy, inspiring innovation, catalyzing relevant research, and amplifying the voices of community leaders, all within the context of a changing climate.

Solving this crisis is the right thing to do. To turn a blind eye to the suffering of millions is to deny their dignity. Fortunately, we are a resilient and creative nation, and with the right focus, resources, and partnerships we can close this water access gap in our lifetimes.

To read the full report and support groups like The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and Mississippi Worker’s Center for Human Rights, visit www.closethewatergap.org.

 

Catherine Coleman Flowers

 

Catherine Coleman Flowers is Senior Fellow of Environmental Justice and Civic Engagement at the Center for Earth Ethics as well as the director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.

Learn More about Catherine’s work…

 

 

 

George McGraw is CEO of DIGDEEP. 

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Catherine Coleman Flowers

A County Where the Sewer Is Your Lawn: Catherine Coleman Flowers Op-Ed in the NY Times

A lack of proper sewage systems in rural Alabama is exposing people already living in extreme poverty to health hazards like hookworm, and denying them dignified living conditions.  Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Originally published May 22, 2018.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In Alabama’s Black Belt, along the road from Selma to Montgomery where civil rights activists fought for voting rights, there’s a glaring problem that’s all too often overlooked — a lack of working sewer systems.

The Alabama Department of Public Health estimates 40 to 90 percent of homes have either inadequate or no septic system. And half of the septic systems that have been installed aren’t working properly.

Many homes here rely on straight PVC pipes that carry waste from houses to open pits and trenches that often overflow during heavy rains, bringing sewage into people’s yards where children play.

The situation isn’t much better in towns connected to relatively functioning sewer systems. Heavy rains and floodings, which seem to be intensifying because of climate change, overwhelm weak sewer systems, forcing sewage to back up in people’s homes, and contaminating drinking water.

The problem has real effects on people’s health. A 2017 report in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found that among 55 adults surveyed, 34.5 percent tested positive for hookworms, which thrive in areas of extreme poverty with poor sanitation. Hookworms are not deadly, but they can impede physical and cognitive development in children, and expose victims to intestinal illnesses.

I have worked on these issues for years and seen firsthand how devastating they are for residents.

Pamela Rush, a disabled mother of two children, aged 9 and 15, desperately wants to leave her mobile home in an unincorporated part of Lowndes County because she believes her family’s health is in jeopardy.

I recently visited her home, which reeked of mold and mildew. A PVC pipe carried sewage away from the house, but wasn’t nearly long enough to stop sewage from ending up in her yard. Sewage was visible just inches from the home.

Ms. Rush constantly worries that the pipe will clog and sewage will back up into her home. But she worries even more about her 9-year-old daughter, who sleeps with her, and must use a ventilation device, commonly used for sleep apnea, so she’ll get enough oxygen.

Ms. Rush doesn’t know what impact her living conditions are having on her daughter. But on a monthly income of $958, there’s no way she can afford to leave, or fix the waste disposal problems. She feels trapped.

Read the Full Article Here


Catherine is the Director of Environmental Justice & Civic Engagement and is a significant voice in the landscape of Environmental Justice in the United States.  Don’t miss her during On Water & Faith: Ministry in a Time of Climate Change, at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  Thursday, May 31st, she will be in dialogue with Former Vice President Al Gore for our Public Evening Program, Climate, Water and Justice: Our Changing Planet & a Moral Call to Action.  Catherine will also join an  panel on Water and Justice: The Disproportionate Impacts of Climate Change and offer a Skills Training /Workshop focused on Engaging Local Communities.