Jerri-Lynn here: The appointment of Scott Pruitt, former Oklahoma attorney general, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has elicited much sturm und drang, due to his longstanding close collaboration with fossil fuel interests to thwart policies to address climate change. In fact, just an hour ago, I crossposted a piece from DeSmogBlog tracing such close connections.
Yet while it’s no doubt true that Pruitt and other Trump appointees are poised to gut the EPA, this timely Real News Network interview reminds us that to date, the agency and other federal and state regulators have far from a sterling record in dealing with toxic chemicals and other hazardous wastes, in water supplies and elsewhere. The interview focuses on an underreported issue, the failure of these regulators to keep waste water out of the backyards of rural America. Catherine Coleman Flowers, the founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) and subject of the interview, claims that the failure to protect citizens from this and similar hazards is not just confined to Alabama, but extends throughout the country. The common factor linking what she describes as “sacrificed communities” that are exposed to waste water, or to other hazards in their water supply, is that they are overwhelmingly poor.
Raw sewage, tropical parasites: is it still surprising that many of the the rural poor are outraged?
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.
Climate change denier Scott Pruitt is now at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency with many speculating that he and President Trump are poised to gut federal environmental protection regulations for clean air and clean water. But what about those across the country who are already living with the health hazards of toxic chemicals and waste in their own backyards?
With us to discuss this very under-reported issue affecting rural America is Catherine Coleman Flowers. She is a native of Lowndes County, Alabama. She’s also the founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, otherwise known as ACRE, and she works for the Equal Justice Initiative. Her focus is rural poverty. Recently she was a featured speaker at the Climate and Health Meeting presented by former Vice President Al Gore’s organization, the Climate Reality Project in partnership with the American Public Health Association and the Harvard Global Health Institute.
Catherine, thank you so much for joining us here on The Real News.
CATHERINE FLOWERS: Thank you for inviting me.
KIM BROWN: Your group, ACRE, is in Lowndes County, Alabama, which is one of the poorest areas in the nation, but is also an historic region because it’s located between Selma and Montgomery, 47 of the 54 miles of historic 1965 voting rights march led by Dr. Martin Luther King runs through Lowndes County.
Right now, let’s take a look at a video clip of what residents have had to deal with now for decades.
WOMAN: It’s really the waste that comes out of the septic tank. That’s what it is. It’s like the raw sewage that comes out of your body. It’s the odor, it’s the smell, it’s the raw sewage that comes out of a person’s body. Thats what it is. There’s no other way to explain it. That’s what it is.
MAN: And that is all over your yard.
WOMAN: This is an area close to the lagoons and the resident says when the red light goes off at the lagoon, look for her yard to fill up with raw sewage the next day. And she said out of all the years that she has lived here, which is, like, 28 years, her children or her grandchildren has never been able to play in the yard during spring break because it’s always wet or flooded out with raw sewage.
KIM BROWN: You know, that clip was published on May 20th, 2016. Have the conditions changed since them with residents complaining of raw sewage filling up their yards when it rains?
CATHERINE FLOWERS: No, it hasn’t changed. That particular clip dealt with the community that has waste water treatment and there’s a lagoon there, and whenever it rains with these deluges that we’re getting now that climate change is more common, it overflows, and it overflows into their yards. Actually, there is a street that runs in the area where that lagoon is located, and there are houses on both sides of the street, and the home that was featured, the homeowner that was talking, lives across on the other side of the street, the opposite side of the street where the lagoon is. But we also have issues where people cannot afford waste water sanitation and in rural communities they generally require onsite waste water sanitation or septic tanks, and because of our soil conditions, the high-water tables, the soil holds water, and, as a result, the systems that people are required to have are very expensive, and in some cases more expensive than the income that that family may have coming into that household for one year. So, as a result, there are people that, when they flush their toilets, the raw sewage is just running out onto the ground, usually in their backyards, sometimes front yards, sometimes next door.
So we have found that it’s a major problem. Those people that have septic systems that can afford them, because of the ground holds water, again with these frequent rain storms that we have or more volume of rain coming down, it usually forces the sewage for those that have a septic system back into the houses, and it can come in through the bathtub, come in through the sink, so those are the kinds of issues that they’re experiencing. And it’s symbolic because it’s Lowndes County, because of its location, because every sitting president has living president has come through there going to Selma, but as we memorialize the history and what happened in Selma, raw sewage is still on the ground, and it’s been there for centuries. Unlike Flint, where there was failed infrastructure, mostly what we’re dealing with is no infrastructure and no public investment in dealing with that or taking care of that problem.
KIM BROWN: Catherine, talk about how these rural residents got caught in between the cracks, and how and why government agencies such as the EPA didn’t deal with this decades-long issue?
CATHERINE FLOWERS: That’s a good question. I think that primarily it’s because rural communities across this country have been ignored. You know, when you’re in a major media market, then it doesn’t get reported. And, you know, we know about Flint probably because Flint was a major city, but if Flint had been in Lowndes County or in any other rural community across this country, I doubt if we would’ve known about this.
So that is the reason why I think the government did not take an effort, and it’s not just the EPA, it’s also the USDA because rural communities, these kinds of problems, should be funded by USDA funds and I was told more than ten years ago that the USDA in Alabama was sending money back to Washington. So, the federal agencies had not made this a priority. Lately, because of our testimony before the Inner American Commission on Human Rights, there’s been a human rights violation.
The EPA’s Environmental Justice Office has been working with us to try to solve this problem, but now I’m starting to lose hope because if there is a move to eliminate the EPA then we’re going to continue to have these kinds of what has been termed as third world conditions right here in the United States. And that’s a very real concern of ours because with the recent study, we did in partnership with Baylor’s National School of Tropical Medicine, the study has been… has not been published yet, but will be published soon, we have found evidence of tropical parasites in Lowndes County, and that’s the perfect marriage of climate change and environmental injustice as I call it where this problem has been ignored to benign(?) neglect for years, over a hundred years, and now we’re starting to see things that we shouldn’t see in the richest nation in the world.
KIM BROWN: What has been the cost to human health? What has that been from this toxic exposure to residents? I mean, as we saw in the clip, there were three generations, the grandmother, children, grandchildren, and the woman was saying that her children and grandchildren have never been able to play in her yard during spring break because of the amount of raw sewage. So what types of health problems have residents been complaining about as a result?
CATHERINE FLOWERS: Well, a lot of people have asthma, even in that household. She joked that there’s probably an asthma pot(?) in every room in her house. There are a lot of illnesses that people have had that they don’t understand the cause of them, primarily because the doctors in this country don’t look for tropical illnesses, because it’s not expected to exist in the United States.
KIM BROWN: Catherine, when you say tropical illnesses, what illnesses are you speaking of specifically?
CATHERINE FLOWERS: Well, hookworm was supposed to be wiped out in the first half of the last century. That was actually the Rockefeller Foundation was established… it evolved from the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission which was put in place to eliminate hookworm, because at that time there was no public health institutions in the South and it gave rise to public health in the South, and a lot of people were treated for hookworm because it was the whole image of the slow Southerner. A lot of that was because of hookworm that caused anemia, and it also could limit the growth of children, and has impact on cognitive development, as well.
So that’s one of the illnesses that you generally don’t find here, but you’re finding anywhere else in the country… I mean, anywhere else in the world, where you find poverty. And that’s what we have in common.
There were other illnesses, as well, all of them I’m not going to reveal, but there were at least five other tropical parasites that you generally find in tropical areas, where they’re very common there, because they have raw sewage on the ground. But here, that’s not generally the case.
So the health problems that people see that are quite common I think we’re at the tip of the iceberg in terms of this trying to determine whether or not these illnesses are connected to raw sewage being on the ground. And we’re going to, after the study is released, we’re going to call for additional study, because I’m sure that some of the thing that doctors haven’t been able to figure out may see a link there with the raw sewage being on the ground.
KIM BROWN: How widespread is this issue both across Alabama and also across rural America at large?
CATHERINE FLOWERS: That’s a good question. Across rural America I think it’s more apparent, more… it’s happening more than people realize. I addressed the National Onsite Waste Water Recyclers Association, a conference, back in October, and it was clear people would say that it’s in all 50 states. There was another conference that I addressed and there were people there representing 12 different states, and one was Alaska, and the person from Alaska said they have the same problem there because of permafrost. There was an attorney there from Illinois who said that it’s outside of Chicago.
It used to be when I would do… I would take young people there that were interested in environmental issues and I would ask the question: have any of you ever seen this before? More and more people are raising their hands. So this is a problem that’s quite common in rural communities across the United States, because there’s been a lack of investment in infrastructure to deal with this, and the assumption is that this particular type of infrastructure has already been addressed, and it has not been addressed.
KIM BROWN: So, is this toxic exposure that affects a greater number of those who are low income and in community of color, in your opinion, Catherine, is this a form of environmental racism and classism?
CATHERINE FLOWERS: Oh, definitely, a form of environmental racism, and also I think a form of environmental classism because the inequalities that this represents, the one common denominator if it’s not race, it’s poverty. So poor communities, even poor people in Lowndes County, poor white people in Lowndes County, in poor communities, poor indigenous people in parts of California that I’ve met and people that are in Arizona that have the same problem, the one commonality is the fact that they’re low income. And that’s a very, very… I think that’s the common denominator that we see in all of this whether it’s in a black community or a white community, indigenous community, or it could be a Latino community, is the fact that they’re all poor.
KIM BROWN: Recently, we’ve seen Congress kill protections from dumping coal waste into rivers and streams, so what do you think about the possible gutting of clean air and clean water protections, and the kinds of fallout that we could see from those gutting of regulations in terms of affecting public health?
CATHERINE FLOWERS: Well, I think we’re going to see it on the front lines first, or those so-called sacrificed communities that are poor. I remember when I testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights we shared the platform with some people that were from Arizona and New Mexico whose water being poisoned by uranium. People from California who lived in farming communities and their water being poisoned by pesticide, you know, the people. And … Alabama whose water, they actually… there was money that was put in place for waste-water treatment and it was a failed system, and the onus was on the city who had no money in the first place. And the engineers designed something that obviously was flawed because I personally witnessed raw sewage … So, that is the kind of problem that we find across this country in poor rural communities where when we talk about infrastructure the assumption is that the homeowners themselves have to be responsible for it instead of the kinds of public investment that has gone into every major waste water and water treatment facility across this country in urban communities.
KIM BROWN: Given that climate change is disrupting weather patterns and scientists don’t know what the effects on toxic chemicals in the environment can be, what do you think that the public should do in order to respond to these issues, and what should government agencies also be doing?
CATHERINE FLOWERS: Well, first of all, the public needs to learn as much as they can about these issues so that they can lift their voices and talk about the solution.
First of all, people don’t even realize the extent of the problem that they’re dealing with, and they need to make sure that their elected officials are aware of these problems and work on the solutions, the policies, that will address these in Lowndes County. For example, when I got involved, it was a negative policy, which was and still is in place, that if a person is reported to the public health department, then they’re arrested. That’s not a solution. That’s only going to force people deeper and deeper underground instead of having to find the solutions to these potential health hazards.
In addition to that, there need to be policies in place to make sure that when we deal with infrastructure, infrastructure problems shouldn’t be just roads and bridges, it should also be infrastructure to deal with waste water treatment because we cannot have clean water without adequate waste water treatment. And I would think that the foundations… we found the foundations that deal with waste water issues don’t deal with them in the United States because the presumption is that this is not a problem in the United States. It is a problem in the United States, and the more we have these rain events, the warmer it gets, the more you have standing water on the ground, and even with my own environment, I got involved and came up with the theory that there could be possibilities of tropical illnesses because I was bitten by mosquitoes. I’ve seen mosquitoes actually sitting on top of raw sewage, and that’s a problem. And the potential for the kinds of health problems that can extend not just in Lowndes County, but throughout the United States, are tremendous and they need to be addressed with positive public policy.
And also the type of investment that should happen, foundations need to start funding these kinds of infrastructure projects here in the United States and find the technologies that are sustainable and resilient that can address it because with climate change what worked 20 years ago is not going to work now. If you’re having more rain and these systems hold water, we need to find a better way to deal with that.
So we have issued a challenge like Bill Gates issued the Toilet Challenge we’ve issued a waste water challenge to find something that will work, and if it’ll work in Lowndes County, as I was just told by the engineer at Duke a few weeks ago, that if it’ll work in Lowndes County, we’ll solve the problems of a third of the world that has this same issue.
KIM BROWN: And, Catherine, last question. You said that you were awaiting the results of an environmental study in your community. When do you expect those results to be in?
CATHERINE FLOWERS: The results are in. We’re waiting for it to be published, and once it’s published, and we can talk about it a little more, we anticipate in the next few months that we will be able to see the study being published and there will be lots more discussion around it, including identifying the parasites that were found in this study.
KIM BROWN: Indeed, well, we hope that you will share those results with us when they are published, and we appreciate you making time to speak with us. We’ve been joined today by Catherine Coleman Flowers. She is from Lowndes County, Alabama. She’s also the founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, and we’ve been discussing the types of injustices and challenges and environmental issues that rural America oftentimes faces and many times those issues are overlooked.
Catherine, we appreciate your time today. Thank you so much.
CATHERINE FLOWERS: Thank you. Bye bye.
KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.