Today’s guest columnist is Catherine Coleman Flowers.
I was born in Birmingham and lived briefly in the city as it went through changes associated with the modern-day civil rights movement.
Eventually, my family moved to Lowndes County, which is where my father was born.
My mother was born in Autauga County, which was on the other side of the Alabama River. They were both activists who believed in and advocated for civil and human rights. Their fights prepared me for the one that is now my life’s work: improving sanitation treatment in the United States and around the world.
Globally over two billion people are without sanitation. People often think this is a problem that only affects developing nations; however, straight piping, failing septic systems, and broken treatment systems that bring sewage into yards and homes are present throughout America – and throughout Alabama.
In the U.S., access to sustainable wastewater infrastructure in rural communities is not guaranteed and, in many cases, is the responsibility of the homeowner or poor rural towns. This is an example of the inequality that exists in the wealthiest country in the world.
Who is impacted? It is prevalent in Black communities, Indigenous communities, migrant communities, and poor white communities. Sadly, there is no clear consensus on how many people are impacted because there has not been an attempt to document this nationwide.
COVID and parasites like hookworm
Climate change – and the lack of climate justice – is also impacting this issue in regions with rising water tables, melting permafrost, and failing infrastructure. Ultimately the solution is to change the engineering paradigm by including impacted residents in the process from design to deployment. Otherwise, the problem will persist and further compound public health crises like COVID or parasites like hookworm.
Alabama has been hit particularly hard by the sewage crisis. From the Gulf Coast to the Black Belt region, residents are facing wastewater problems from non-existent or failing sewer infrastructure (such as onsite septic systems).
Every Alabama County
For example – I recently participated in a live Q&A with a Gulf Coast audience. One woman detailed her own experience with a failing system and how most of the septic systems in her community are either bringing wastewater into the house or leaking outside their homes. Hearing stories like this sadly prove true what a state health director told me years ago – that there are wastewater treatment problems in every single one of the sixty-seven counties in Alabama.
Even people who are paying for wastewater treatment are impacted by failing systems. The town of Hayneville is one example. Despite the national attention brought to the failing systems there, residents are still suffering. It is also not just a black problem. Even people who are white are living in areas with failed designs and contending with sewage coming back into their homes.
The societal effects of dealing with this are far-reaching; once I was approached by a person who lives in a Black Belt town who said that she was embarrassed to invite guests to their home because of the stench of raw sewage.
Escaped sewage in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa
Clearly the technology is failing, and it not designed to deal with climate change – especially the increasingly forceful storms. The Associated Press recently quoted reports submitted to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management stating more than 18.5 million gallons (70 million liters) of sewer water spilled over the past 10 days around Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, where the National Weather Service said some spots have received more than 6 inches (15.2 centimeters) of rain. The article went on to state that in the Tennessee Valley, about 4.8 million gallons (18 million gallons) of sewage escaped from sewer pipes in Decatur from Thursday to Saturday, with most ending up in Dry Branch Creek.
What we must do
We must rebuild failing wastewater systems and build back better. The new technologies must be able to reuse and reclaim important nutrients while dispensing clean water. Sustainable wastewater infrastructure is essential to the public health. And all communities should have access to working designs. We must stop spending money to put failing technologies in marginalized communities, compounding an ongoing environmental justice disaster.
In Alabama, we must identify every community that has failing wastewater infrastructure and put together a plan to address it. If the state approves systems that consistently fail, they should have to repay the taxpayers’ money back to the funding source. Realtors should have to disclose failing septic systems to prospective buyers. This will go a long way in forcing solutions.
During my service on the Biden-Sanders Climate Change Task Force in 2020, I advocated for green wastewater infrastructure. As water tables rise and deluges of rainfall fall from the sky, the current technology will continue to fail. We must innovate our way out of this mess by developing new technologies to address the current and future realities to insure sanitation equity.
I know we can have the tools and ingenuity to rise and meet this challenge, but I truly believe that it begins by identifying and showing people the problem. I am excited to report that my organization – the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice – is partnering with The Guardian on a yearlong project to document wastewater problems around the United States. This is an effort to identify where the problems are occurring and to find more sustainable solutions.
We have come a long way
When I first begin to speak publicly about failing wastewater infrastructure and people living with raw sewage, I was discouraged from talking about it. Today I am happy to see we have come a long way by removing the shame from discussing our waste. Now everyone impacted has a chance to be part of the solution.
I invite anyone reading this to help us identify the “dirty shame” that have witnessed so we can eliminate hookworm and other diseases of poverty once and for all. It is a step toward sanitation and environmental justice for Alabama and the nation.
Catherine Coleman Flowers is an internationally recognized environmental activist, MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, and author. Founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ), Flowers has spent her career advocating for equal access to water and sanitation for all communities — particularly those who are marginalized. In her new book, ‘Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,’ Flowers discusses sanitation and its correlation with systemic class, racial, and geographic prejudice that affects people across the United States and shares her inspiring story of advocacy, from childhood to environmental justice champion.
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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.