Finding Solutions to Wastewater Issues: A Q&A with Catherine Coleman Flowers

Catherine Coleman Flowers is talking about something that we don’t hear about too often: waste and sanitation. Flowers, a 2020 MacArthur Genius grant recipient, is the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, which seeks to address the root causes of poverty by seeking sustainable solutions. In her work she’s taking on a lack of sewage disposal infrastructure and exploring the legacy of racism as it relates to inequities in these systems. She was thrust into the fight almost accidentally 20 years ago when she was working as an economic consultant for Lowndes County, Ala. As part of her work she was called out to help families facing eviction from their trailer homes. Their crime: They could not afford to install septic systems. In fact, their waste water came out of their trailers and dumped right onto the earth — toilet paper and human waste festering in plain sight. That was the start of her journey, which took her from Lowndes County, one of the ten poorest counties in Alabama’s Black Belt, to Washington D.C. and everywhere in between. 

Today, Flowers is the Rural Development Manager for the Equal Justice Initiative in Lowndes Count, which serves its citizens and a Professor of Practice at Duke University. Last summer, she was part of a climate task force headed by former secretary of state John Kerry and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) charged with making policy recommendations to the new Biden administration. She recently wrote a book about the topic, Waste, One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty SecretThe Commons editor-in-chief Karen Bannan spoke with Flowers about her current work and what public interest technology practitioners can do to get involved in the environmental justice fight. 

Q: What are the biggest challenges right now around environmental justice?

Flowers: The biggest challenge to solving just environmental justice issues is basically acknowledging that it’s a problem and how widespread it is. People want the data, and there is some data, but a lot of data has not been collected in many of the areas that are impacted. That is one of the things that’s going to be essential so we can figure out how to roll back these obstacles, how do we unpack them, because some of them are structural. To do that we have to look more intently, not just at the air quality or the water quality but why do people live in these communities [that are affected most by environmental justice]? What were the laws that forced them to be there in the first place? If we start unpacking some of these things there’s a deeper story to be told.

For example, I was speaking with someone last week about a part of a town that’s not connected to wastewater treatment. And the people at the water and sewer board there were basically adamant about how they were not going to extend sewer to this area. It was more more than one area of the city, but they were all Black. They were saying, ‘well, the developers that developed the project should have put in the sewer, and since they didn’t put in the sewer, and we’re not going to do it, and we’re going to force them to be on septic systems.’ That’s an example of the type of structural racism and obstacles that create these problems. And the fact that and these people have grown they’re so accustomed to them — that they don’t realize that they’re playing into these structures of the Confederacy, that they still exist. So the way technology can help with that, in the work that I do, is unpack that history and use technology to find the data to support that. Why were African Americans living in this part of the area in the first place? Talk about redlining –we’ve got to go and use data to show that red lining has a lot to do what where people settle. These decisions didn’t just start being made, they were made years and years ago, and they continue to evolve and manifest in these injustices that we find in environmental justice communities across the country –whether they’re communities of color, or whether they are poor communities or rural communities.

Q: Has there been any work on how widespread and pervasive this problem is?

Flowers:  We have to figure out the magnitude of it, but it’s a significant problem. We have to ask the question, why are we looking for another planet to go to? If we didn’t realize we were destroying the earth, which is our common home, we wouldn’t be trying to have colonies on Mars, or find another planet where life can be sustained. If we continue on the path that we’re on, then nobody is going to be able to live here because we would have contaminated the air and the water, which is the center of life for all of us.

So in terms of the magnitude: I think the magnitude is very great. I think anywhere we find industrial waste and pollution, we’re going to find it. Anywhere we see communities where they’re still trying to force in the type of technologies that we know are contaminants to the environment and that could potentially contaminate the water, anywhere fracking is taking place.

It’s more widespread than we know, and some people don’t realize it until it’s in their own backyard, or until they start having high rates of cancer, so much so that every household has been impacted by and that’s what make people start asking questions. Part and parcel of showing the extent of environmental justice is just looking at climate change, and who’s impacted and how often and that’s everywhere around the world.

Q: How can public interest technologists help? Do you need their help?

Flowers: Yes, we do need help. I can answer that question quite easily. In terms of what I’m doing: I’m working on the wastewater issue throughout the U.S. We’re actually partner with The Guardian, because go back to your first question, how many people are impacted by this? There are no government figures on how many people are impacted by either failing wastewater systems, or not having wastewater systems. So what we’re doing is a year-long survey asking people to self report around the U.S. whether or not they have either a failing septic system, no septic system, or a failing decentralized system. By having this information and then using technology to map it will help policymakers understand that this is a national issue, and not just an issue in one part of the U.S. Most people tend to think that it’s only in the South. That’s why in my book I wrote about other areas of the U.S, that also have this problem so that we can see that it’s something we need to jump on now before it becomes a bigger public health issue. How can technology help us? One of the things that I’m embarked upon and looking for partners in this process, we are actually getting ready to work on our own wastewater technology solution.

Q: You’re creating alternatives to septic systems?

Yes. If we can treat wastewater in our space to drinking water quality, we can do that across earth. And our goal and my goal is to put together a team of people to do this. I’m using a MacArthur Fellowship to locate to an area where I can have contact with more engineers and scientists. The goal is to to be able to create this type of wastewater technology. I see it being akin to an HVAC system. You buy it, you hire a technician to come install it. And this is important because just because I can go to Lowe’s or Home Home Depot and buy it doesn’t mean that I can install it or even service it. So we’re hoping to create a system that can either be used in the home or in a building to treat wastewater to the point that it would be drinking water quality, and maybe even shift the paradigm of how we treat wastewater. Instead of going through pipes through the city and ending up in a treatment plant we need to change that because if there’s a water event and the current system breaks down, it’s poisoning our drinking water. We were hoping to combine that technology with the ingenuity of environmental justice communities who live with these failures to see if we can change the engineering paradigm and come up with something that works.

It can happen. I’m inspired by what happened over the past year when scientists got together and created a COVID vaccine for a disease that we didn’t even know existed a little more than a year ago.

Q: You have access to incredible policymakers. Are you working with any legislators yet?

Flowers: The legislators are important. They helped get the COVID vaccine started, but they didn’t have the people in the community working on the problem, and that’s why they’re having some resistance to taking the vaccine. At the end of the day, I think that if we’re going to use the principles of environmental justice, we also have to have affected people sitting at the table. We can’t hover in with a solution and think that people are going to buy into it. We’re still dealing with a pandemic because there are people resist taking the vaccines.

With our paradigm shift, with people sitting at the table, I think that’s going to make a difference right there. We will be working with various entities — I’m not prepared to announce who they are yet — but we will be working with various entities to come up with a solution. What’s going to make it come together is that there are people around the world that need this. We have a lot of the technology, we just have to bring it down to earth and figure out how to use it. Part of the buy in is making sure that impacted people are sitting at the table — not at the end of the process. From the beginning of the process and all the way through the process so that by the time we do come up with something new and different, it will be acceptable in the communities that will probably be among the first to get it.

Q: That’s one of the major tenants of public interest technology!

Flowers. Yes. That shift in the paradigm where we have people sitting at the table that are not just academics, that’s what makes this process a little bit different from what happened with the COVID vaccine work, but I’m still inspired by that process. I think if they did it in a year, I think in five years we should be able to come up with some wastewater technology that we will be willing to warranty would work, as opposed to conversations that are going on now, about legislators. I don’t think legislators always have the answer. I think the only thing that legislators can do who have an interest in environmental justice policy is to try to get funding. But environmental justice work should be a bottom up approach instead of a top down.

Q: You were very instrumental last summer during your work with the Biden transition team. Can you tell us more about that, especially since this administration has a very different take on environmental issues.

Flowers: This past summer I served on the climate change unity task force that President Biden and Senator Sanders put together. I served with [current White House National Climate Advisor] Gina McCarthy and [United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate] John Kerry, and [U.S. Representative] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And, out of that committee, there were members of Congress. There was a subcommittee on environmental justice that included Gina, and myself and a lot of the policy that was part of the Executive Orders during the first days of the Biden presidency came from the policy we recommended back in June and July of last year. I’m very excited about having been one of the people to have architected what is now part the administration’s policy going forward.  [President Biden has committed to incorporating social justice considerations into his environmental agenda.] When we were talking about the issues around environmental justice, I made sure that wastewater was a part of it. We talk about infrastructure and green infrastructure that is, it’s not just building bridges.

Q: Can you explain why wastewater is such a problem?

Flowers: Everybody uses the bathroom, no matter where you live, how much money you have. It is just a part of life. But what has happened is that there are people in this country, primarily in rural communities, that don’t have wastewater treatment at all. When they use their toilets, they flush them and out comes the effluent that went into the toilet. It’s usually on the ground, in a pit, or in a pasture, wherever it is to get it away from the house. And that’s what I’ve been working on all these years.

The second problem that we found is that a lot of people have failing wastewater treatment systems –on site systems that are primarily in rural communities as well as suburban communities. And we’re finding out that in some cases, some cities, septic systems are failing because of sea level rise. You get too much water, whether it’s coming from the top from rain or coming from the bottom to sea level rise, they’re failing. Miami has approximately a $3 billion septic tank problem with water coming from the bottom and the top.

Third problem that we found are these treatment plants that people have in some cases, the pipes aren’t weren’t built correctly, there are all kinds of issues associated with them. My work got started when I found out that people were being arrested in Lowndes County, Alabama, because they couldn’t afford it on site septic, so I thought to learn as much as I could about the problem. We did it the old fashioned way going from house to house and doing doing a survey. We went to over 1000 homes, and that’s how we found out the extent of the problem. During that experience, I was bitten by mosquitoes. I had a lot of bites on my leg and I broke out in the rash. I went to my doctor said, look, all these mosquitoes were nesting on raw sewage. The toilet paper and the feces that came out that day. It was sitting on top of it. I saw an op ed that was written by Dr. Peter Hotez in the New York Times talking about tropical diseases being in our area. So I wrote him and I told him about my experience. And I asked, if it was possible that there’s something that American doctors not looking for? And he said, yes. That’s what led to us doing our study where we found evidence of tropical parasites, which included hookworm in Lowndes County. Shortly after that, we invited [Philip Alston] the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty to come to Lowndes County, so that he could see it. And what he saw there, he said this is uncommon in developed world. So the fact that we’re the wealthiest country in the world, and we have people pretty much living in third world country conditions that is something that that we need to deal with.

Q: That’s how you got into this, right?

Flowers: That was how I got involved in 2002. People in Lowndes County were being arrested because they could not afford on-site septic systems because they are very expensive. That’s an example of the criminalization of poverty. Whoever came up with that process — they found a way to make people buy products that they would somehow profit from. It was a bad idea because it creates more problems. Even people that have invested in septic systems, they are failing. That’s why our quest at this particular point is to first of all, try to develop something new and different because we know what they have in place is not working. I’m not advocating or pushing for on site septic systems to be installed at this particular point, unless they come with a warranty that’s as long as the mortgages on the houses. There has to be warranty and service if there’s not warranty and service then then that’s an issue. One way technology can help us with that is let’s see if we can find out which systems around the country last the longest. Which ones are working? Under what conditions with a working landscape.

Q: How can public interest technology practitioners — especially students and early career technologists — get involved?

Flowers: The first thing they can do is, follow us on social media. I’m accessible through social media, I do respond to emails. The second thing they can do is that we’re going to have a program this summer where we will be looking for interns to work with us, and we’re also looking for interns to work with us on this project with The Guardian [called America’s Dirty Divide]. Especially if they’re located in areas of the country where The Guardian may not have a reach, but we need to get that data. It would be very useful for students to reach out to us for internships, and partnering with us. And if they have any great ideas, we want to hear about them! One of the things that I’m pushing for in legislation that may, hopefully, manifest is that this administration, that Congress put money in place to fund Centers of Innovation to look at things like the wastewater problem. This will be done hopefully, around the country to give students a chance to think outside the box about how we can solve this problem. This is an opportunity where students can learn the principles of environmental justice, and apply the practice of public interest technology to it as well.

We’re going to be and are open to work with people around the nation, especially in places like Alaska — we know they have wastewater problems to because they reached out to us. But in order for us to us to document the problem we need to get young people involved in helping us to do that.