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One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret

The New Press,

15 min read
6 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Waste disposal issues illustrate government’s neglect of people in poor and forgotten places.

Editorial Rating



  • Controversial
  • Eye Opening
  • Insider's Take


In this part memoir, part exposé, Catherine Flowers chronicles her decades-long battle to raise rural Lowndes County, Alabama up to modern sanitation standards. Her descriptions of raw sewage pumped into the backyards of the poor and powerless serve as a metaphor for the injustice heaped on forgotten communities throughout the United States. Shockingly, despite many victories, Flowers’s struggle to bring standard sanitation to impoverished people remains a work in progress. 


Despite the wealth of the United States, many rural residents live without adequate sewage systems or sanitation.

In places like Lowndes County, Alabama, soiled toilet paper, raw sewage and other effluents flow from ramshackle houses and mobile homes directly into yards where children play and families gather. Open cesspools breed tropical diseases, and people – too poor to install costly septic systems – face imprisonment for the crime of living in conditions they cannot escape.

About 90% of the homes in Lowndes County have inadequate sewage systems. Similar conditions exist in poor rural communities throughout the United States. Determined to address these inequities, Catherine Coleman Flowers embarked on a decades-long effort to provide working sanitation systems, clean water and livable homes to residents of her home county and beyond.

The government often neglects impoverished communities that have few people and few resources.

Catherine Coleman grew up in a working-class family in Lowndes County during the 1960s and 70s. Long...

About the Author

Catherine Coleman Flowers, the rural development manager at the Equal Justice Initiative, runs the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. 

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