Catherine Coleman Flowers


The Invisible Problem Plaguing Rural America

Catherine Coleman Flowers, the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, has dedicated her life to ensuring human dignity through a right most Americans take for granted: basic sanitation. We caught up with her about wastewater management (what she calls “America's dirty secret”), her experience on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and how to ensure community solutions are actually community-driven.

  • March 30th 2023

Catherine Coleman Flowers spoke at Aspen Ideas: Climate 2023.

You recently wrote a book about your fight against “America’s dirty secret.” What is this secret, and what do you wish more people knew about it?

The secret is there is a sanitation problem in the richest country in the United States. Diseases like hookworm which is associated with underdeveloped nations have been documented here. This is particularly prevalent in rural communities, poor communities, and communities of color. In my native Lowndes County, located between Selma and Montgomery, systemic racism severely limits rural communities from having access to basic sanitation, clean water, and resilient wastewater infrastructure – a problem that climate change is only making worse. The truth is that this issue is prevalent around the country, as we’ve seen in cities like Jackson, MS, and Mt. Vernon, NY. It’s past time that we really put a spotlight on this issue and demand change.

Talking about wastewater management, you’ve said, “We want to shift the engineering paradigm, where people who are sitting at the table helping to design the solution are the people also living with the problem.” Is there a project you’re excited about right now that’s bringing more folks to the table?

We cannot understate the importance of having community member involvement in the decision process for implementing wastewater solutions, especially in rural communities. We have several projects and partnerships in the works that we will be announcing soon. It’s no secret that I’ve talked before about my fascination with how NASA approaches wastewater systems in space. I take inspiration from so many areas of study, and I’m hopeful that we who are working in this field will continue to think outside of the box when it comes to solutions. 

We cannot understate the importance of having community member involvement in the decision process for implementing wastewater solutions, especially in rural communities.
Catherine Coleman Flowers

The majority of your work is focused on poor rural communities, a nexus of public health and environmental, economic, and racial justice. In terms of how sanitation is handled in those places, you’ve said, “The burden isn’t on those putting in the waste removal systems—it’s entirely on the families using them. And if the systems fail, and it is reported to the authorities here in Alabama, the families can be cited, brought to court or even arrested.” How can we shift the burden away from individuals and onto the systems that are ultimately criminalizing poverty?

On top of community involvement in the decision-making process, we need to ensure that the solutions to these problems have accountability baked in. The wastewater systems in these communities need to be resilient - accounting for the impacts of climate change now and in the future. The regulators of these systems need also need to be held accountable. Waste removal systems can’t keep failing a year or two after replacement – we need to have them guaranteed to last a minimum of at least 10 years. 

In March 2021, you were appointed by the Biden administration to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Can you tell us more about this — what’s going well? What has been challenging?

Working with the WHEJAC has been a great experience. I believe our work with the administration and our recommendations have led to a lot of positive action on environmental justice initiatives since the council formed in 2021. Specifically, the EPA has since announced a partnership with USDA called the “Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap Community Initiative” (designed to Provide Wastewater Sanitation to Underserved Communities); the launch of the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights; and $100 million for projects that advance environmental justice in underserved and overburdened communities across the country. This funding made possible by the Inflation Reduction Act and is the largest ever amount granted for EJ.

By Maya Kobe-Rundio, Associate Digital Editor, Aspen Ideas

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