First, let me provide you with the real book title – ‘WASTE – One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,’ by Catherine Coleman Flowers.
You may already know that my day job is with DELCORA, Delaware County’s wastewater treatment facility located in Chester, PA, as a state licensed wastewater operator. Wastewater comes to the Chester facility in many forms to be cleaned up before it’s sent to the river. Most of the water coming into the plant is raw sewage from the homes throughout Delco. You know better than I what gets flushed down your toilets and what goes down the drains from your sinks, bathtubs, dishwashers and washing machines. As long as that water goes away and doesn’t backup in your basements, toilets, or bathtubs, you don’t think about wastewater until you get your DELCORA bill every couple months.
Even in the most impoverished city in the county, Chester, the wastewater infrastructure is in excellent shape, so much so that most of us take it for granted. If we do find raw sewage backing up in our home, DELCORA is a phone call away and brings trucks out to fix what may be their’s to fix or inform you you need to hire a plumber if the issue is your responsibility to fix.
Catherine Coleman Flowers discovered the science of wastewater in a totally different context than how we experience it around here. She’s from rural Alabama and shares a horrifying story of an entire county that has an abundance of homes – mostly poor people and mostly people of color – who don’t have access to a municipal wastewater system to remove sewage from their home. Where normally you’d see septic tank systems in rural areas, the people Mrs. Flowers describes don’t have, can’t get, or are put in jail because of issues concerning their wastewater. What’s worse is how she describes the hundreds of homes that ‘straight pipe’ wastewater to their back yards where raw sewage gathers, pools, stinks, and causes disease.
The story takes place in Lowndes County, Alabama which sits on the road between Selma and Montgomery and where over 90% of households have failing or inadequate systems for managing wastewater. It’s so heartbreaking to read how these homeowners literally get arrested because they don’t have the money to install a $20,000 septic system. Some don’t have the money to afford the $700 soil test to determine which is the right septic system to install. Some lose their homes because they can’t pay.
Mrs. Flowers writes an interesting book on this topic but you don’t really get into the topic of wastewater until nearly halfway through. “Waste” is an autobiography of an environmental justice advocate as much as it’s the wastewater story I thought I was going to read about. Her back story is so integral to her advocacy work. She’s now recognized as a worldwide subject matter expert in rural wastewater issues and the phenomenal toll it takes on public health and dignity.
She explained how her parents were activists and she took what she learned from them and used her own organizing skills first to campaign against terrible educators at her high school, leading to the removal of her principal and superintendent. In college, she learned to mobilize large groups, especially in the fight to protect Alabama State University, a historically Black college, from a merger. She left school for the Air Force where she was sexually abused. Shortly after getting married, her husband suffered a head injury resulting in amnesia, which pushed Flowers into her next great battle: agitating for health care and occupational rights on behalf of her husband, while simultaneously reintroducing herself to him.
In a very subtle manner, her autobiography brings us to how she goes all in on the wastewater problems in Lowndes County. It becomes one woman’s story of how she built power through her advocacy for waste treatment, despite it being an issue that many would prefer to ignore. It also is a great story of how pragmatic coalition building works and how she generated momentum for the environmental justice movement overall. The people she connected to this long ignored issue and personally brought to see the cesspools of sewage in the front and back yards of rural Alabama were folks like Bernie Sanders, Bryan Stevenson, Cory Booker, etc. She also worked politicians from both parties to help, even the most unlikely duo of very conservative Republicans Jeff Sessions and Bob Woodson.
Despite all the attention she’s brought to rural wastewater abnormalities, the results and relief for homeowners requires a lot of time and effort. As the book ends, she mentions one women who was always willing to allow the curious folks Mrs. Flowers would bring by to see the conditions at her home. It was so great to read how one of those visitors found it in their heart to buy her a new mobile home with a working septic system. However, the 49-year old lady caught COVID and died before she could enjoy it reminding us how vulnerable people living among the worst living conditions are dying from COVID related illness in large numbers.
Mrs. Flowers shows us that the possibility of building a better world, from the ground up, is contagious. She identified a problem that’s been ignored for a long time, made one connection after another to join her movement to help solution the issue and bring it to the attention of others who could help, and made a difference in how wastewater inequities are perceived and legislated in American even though the ugly problem still persists in much of poor rural America.
I was so intrigued with this great story, it took me all of two days to get through this book.
(You can learn more about this atrocity on Youtube searching ‘Lowndes County, Alabama Sewage problems’)
Tags: Activism, passion, education, connections, persistence, politics, environmental racism, eviction, advocacy, black girl magic.