DegreeMaster of Environmental Management
I have been involved with a partnership between the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) and the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. This non-profit, founded in 2002 by the formidable Catherine Flowers, works on rural wastewater and sanitation issues in Lowndes County, Alabama. Many residents of the largely African-American county do not have properly functioning wastewater infrastructure. They are not hooked up to the centralized sewer system, so they either have septic tanks or straight-pipe raw sewage from their toilets into their backyards. Unfortunately, the dense soils of the area make septic systems expensive to maintain and prone to failure, resulting in wastewater spilling out into peoples’ yards or backing up into their homes. Whether it be the raw sewage in the house or the yard, these unsanitary conditions have led to the reemergence of tropical diseases, like hookworm, that are rarely found in the developed world. These issues are rooted in the long racial history of the county, whereby wastewater infrastructure was designed to exclude communities of color, leaving a legacy that haunts these residents today.
While the extenuating circumstances are specific to this region of Alabama, the underfunding of rural wastewater systems is pervasive in the United States. In her efforts to find sustainable solutions for the residents of Lowndes County, Ms. Flowers discovered many communities throughout the nation that were struggling without proper water and sanitation services. Earlier this year, members of the ACRE-Duke partnership organized the first national stakeholder meeting in Washington, D.C. Alongside academics, NGOs, and the corporate sector, we were joined by congressional staffers to discuss federal policy changes that would increase funding for rural water programs nationwide. They subsequently drafted a proposal to increase funding eightfold for decentralized, rural wastewater systems that made it into the Farm Bill, recently passed by Congress. As the result of elevating the voices of the marginalized in a small Alabama community, there is now pending federal legislation that will allow many more Americans to wash their hands and flush their toilets without serious concerns for their health.
Whether it be at the local or national level, raising the voices of marginalized groups in environmental decision-making can effectively combat environmental injustices. It is essential that low-income and minority groups are heard in every stage of the process, from planning to implementation and enforcement, to ensure that the decisions that get made give equal consideration to every citizen.
Excerpted from A Just Environment: Industry, Environmental Policies, and the Community on the Streetside Conversations website