Drinking Water a Little-Noticed Environmental Justice Problem

March 28, 2018

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An investigation in 2016 found that more than 5,000 U.S. water systems serving almost 18 million people were violating EPA rules for lead in water. Above, the Omohundro Water Treatment Plant in Nashville, Tenn. Photo: Tadson Bussey, Flickr Creative Commons.

Backgrounder: Drinking Water a Little-Noticed Environmental Justice Problem

By Joseph A. Davis

Lack of safe, clean drinking water kills people in many parts of the world. Every year diarrhea, caused mainly by lack of sanitation and clean water, takes the lives of some 525,000 children under five.

It’s not just a problem in developing nations. In the United States, health risks from drinking water also afflict the poor, ethnic minorities and people in remote rural areas.

But it’s also an undercovered environmental justice story — one that takes different forms depending on where in the United States you are. Reporters can find unique stories in urban areas, minority communities, border colonias, migrant farm labor camps and isolated regions.

Smaller systems, serving more people, suffer more problems

The Safe Drinking Water Act, or SDWA, passed in 1974, is supposed to protect most people’s drinking water — and most of the time, for most people, it does. But not always.

Witness what happened in Flint, Mich., in 2014. An economically depressed city with a large minority population discovered that lead in its drinking water was threatening the health of its children. That story grabbed lots of headlines, and it is still being told.

What is told less often is the story of similar problems in places around the country.


Smaller systems serving more of the population

make it almost inevitable that there will be

problems meeting basic standards.


SDWA often does pretty well protecting people in big cities, where the scale of drinking water treatment plants allows them to be high-tech, and where grids of distribution pipes have been laid through concentrated residential areas. But even big cities like Washington, D.C., have problems (see below).

Yet the vast majority of the 151,000 public drinking water systems in the United States are small and middle-sized, with about one-third of those serving most of the population. This 2006 EPA survey has more details.

This lopsidedness — smaller systems serving more of the population — makes it almost inevitable, given smaller systems’ lower funding and staffing levels, as well as economies of scale, that there will be problems meeting basic standards. Even though EPA tries to adjust, smaller systems, often located remotely in rural areas, struggle.

Aging, deteriorating urban pipes

The fiasco in Flint had many causes. One was poverty. Some 57 percent of the population there is African-American, and 42 percent is below the poverty line. Because of recession, Flint’s population had been shrinking dramatically. And the city’s deficit was so serious that the state appointed an emergency manager in 2002.

Those financial stresses were one of the reasons why the city cut corners on its water supply.

But few realize that Flint is not an isolated case. A similar lead-in-water crisis had happened nearly a decade earlier (may require subscription) in Washington, DC.

The common thread: an old and aging urban water system with some lead piping where corrosion was worsened by changes in water chemistry, … and where there was no money to fix the problem, … and where oversight by many levels of government failed.

There are, it turns out, a great many such water systems serving many people across the country. Since lead in pipes has mostly been phased out, they tend to be older systems.

An investigation by CNN in 2016 found that more than 5,000 U.S. water systems serving almost 18 million people were violating EPA rules for lead in water. A Reuters investigation that same year found lead poisoning levels higher than those in Flint in some 3,000 U.S. hotspots. A major cause, beyond water, was another poverty-related problem: kids eating lead paint chips in aging, dilapidated housing . [Editor’s Note: See related TipSheet.]

Lead is not the only problem. Ancient, deteriorating pipes can also promote bacterial contamination, sometimes via leaks near sewage pipes.

Even once such problems are found, poverty — reflected in inadequate tax base and rate base  — is an obstacle to getting them fixed.

Mexican border colonias lack basic water services

Along the U.S. border with Mexico there have sprung up numerous colonias, unincorporated communities, often populated by Latino people, most of whom are low-income. Most estimates put the population above half a million people in about 1,500 communities. Most are in Texas.

Modular bathrooms at a colonia on the southern Arizona border, where the homes were built earlier without indoor plumbing, due to a lack of access to treatment facilities. Estimates for the population of such border communities at half a million people.

Modular bathrooms at a colonia on the southern Arizona border where, without access to sewage treatment facilities, homes were built without indoor plumbing. An estimated half-million people live in such border communities, which often lack basic services like treated running water and sewers. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Many colonias lack basic services like treated running water and sewers, although more have gotten hookups in the past decade or so. Some government funding, from Texas and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has helped.

But money is not the only obstacle — there are a host of legal, regulatory, political and human problems.

The water situation is only one of the reasons for poor health among colonia residents. Poor-to-nonexistent health care is an important factor also.

Migrant farm worker camps often have unhealthy drinking water

Migrant farm workers are the engine powering a big part of U.S. agriculture, especially the part requiring hand work, like picking fruits and vegetables.

It is hard work for low pay, with minimal worker protections. There are an estimated 2-3 million migrants working on U.S. farms in a typical year. They move frequently, from field to field and crop to crop, even during a single season.

Because many of these workers are on guest-worker visas, and others are undocumented, they are at the mercy of the farmers and contractors who employ them. Many feel a need to stay in the shadows and not complain. Often they stay in temporary housing or dormitories, which tends to be ramshackle. Even when this housing is regulated, regulation tends to be poor. Often, however, it is provided by the farmer and is unregulated.

Well-water may be available in such housing. Under SDWA, water systems that are not year-round are subject to weaker rules than other systems, other factors being equal. These are also small systems, and rules for those are more lenient as well. There are a host of unique contaminants that can plague those systems — including bacteria, nitrates and pesticides.

So drinking water for migrant farm workers can often be unhealthful. One recent study that collected water samples from 181 North Carolina migrant camps found that about a third flunked basic drinking water safety tests.

Unincorporated areas lack sewers, water treatment

They used to call it “the other side of the tracks.” In many U.S. towns, often but not always in the South, there are (or used to be) unincorporated areas where poor people, often African-American, lived. These areas, a remnant of the Jim Crow era, often lacked municipal services — one of which was treated water. Today, many have been hooked up. But not all.

The political and economic situations vary.

In California’s Central Valley, for instance, there are a lot of small unincorporated settlements that lack sewers or treated drinking water. Some of the residents may be agricultural workers who are not migrant, or who are semi-migrant. Some have been there since the Okies migrated to California during the Depression. They may be Latino, they may be African-American, but they are likely poor. Some may be undocumented, which disempowers them more.

Getting them hooked up, especially in times of drought, is legally and politically difficult. By one estimate, there are more than 500 such communities in the Central Valley. An estimated 100,000 people live in them in the Central Valley alone. They exist in many other parts of California as well.

Some observers were surprised by a recent scientific report that hookworm — a parasite transmitted largely via contact with untreated sewage — was prevalent in poor areas in Lowndes County, Ala. Hookworm had been more prevalent in the South decades ago, but was thought to have been overcome. It is a parasite normally associated with developing nations.

The Texas Monthly reported on a community technically called “No Town,” in Dallas County. Like Sandbranch, another unincorporated area nearby, No Town’s problems stem partly from its location in a flood plain. Many residents of these areas, which are not hooked up, lack clean water to drink. Sandbranch, which is largely African-American, is struggling to develop a water plan — but must rely on pro bono lawyers and grants from the federal government and nonprofits to do so.

Such communities have been without water and sewers for decades.

Private wells poorly regulated

In many remote parts of the United States, piped-in, treated municipal water is simply not available. So people dig wells. As a result, there are about 15 million households using private wells in the United States.

To the extent that private wells are regulated at all, they are regulated by counties and states. They are not covered under SDWA and EPA does not regulate them. In areas where people commonly live in a trailer out back, government officials are not always welcome.


The confrontation over the Dakota Access Pipeline

… is yet another example of an environmental

justice struggle related to drinking water.


With expert help, good technology and enough money, these wells can provide decent water. But they don’t always.

Households dependent on wells usually rely on septic systems (or even outhouses) for sewage disposal — and these can contaminate drinking wells when improperly located. Natural minerals (e.g., arsenic) can be a groundwater pollutant, as can agricultural runoff. But digging deeper wells, regular well inspection and onsite treatment devices cost money. Rural poverty often prevents such things.

Tribal areas suffer power differential

Water is sacred to many Native Americans, and often “guaranteed” by treaty rights. Yet for many reasons, Native Americans may often not have clean water to drink.

No journalist has done more to explore this multi-faceted problem than Brian Bienkowski of Environmental Health News. You can find links to his “Sacred Water” series here.

The problem is multifaceted because the geography and history of tribal lands varies so widely. Yet in many cases, the problem stems from a similar root cause: Native Americans are second-class citizens denied the legal and political power to protect their own interests. Poverty makes it worse.

On travels out West, Bienkowski found springs on Crow lands in Montana contaminated by agricultural pollutants like heavy metals, nitrates and fecal coliform bacteria. Tribal families on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana spent 18 years living under a boil-water order.

In Wisconsin, the Menominee tribe is trying to protect their waters from mining beyond the boundaries of the reservation. A Texas A&M study found that drinking water violations are more numerous on Native American lands, but that enforcement is less frequent.

The confrontation over the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is yet another example of an environmental justice struggle (may require subscription) related to drinking water. The proposed pipeline was to pass beneath Lake Oahe, an impoundment of the Missouri River, which is upstream of the water supply for the Standing Rock Sioux.

The tribe and allies protested because they believed that a spill would have harmed their water supply, that they had not been adequately consulted, and that a more thorough assessment of the pipeline’s environmental impact was needed.

The DAPL struggle ended when Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016. The CEO of the company trying to build DAPL, Kelcy Warren, had donated $100,000 to Trump’s campaign. Trump quickly ordered the pipeline approved.

In the end, this drinking water struggle was not simply about poverty and discrimination, but about a huge differential in economic and political power between a well-funded pipeline company and a burgeoning popular movement.

Uranium pollutes Navajo lands

The Navajo Reservation spanning parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah is huge; it covers 24,413 square miles and over 250,000 people live there. Not only is the land arid, but the people there are scattered widely apart.

The first problem for many there is just getting enough water of any quality to drink or use for other purposes. About 40 percent of the people don’t have running water in their homes. When there is running water, it may be undrinkable.

For many Navajo on the reservation, water is delivered by tanker truck, and is in limited supply. Money could help solve some of the Navajo Nation’s water problems, so poverty is part of the problem.

A special problem from an environmental justice viewpoint is uranium, which was mined there from 1944 to 1986; there are over 500 abandoned uranium mines. These pollute and endanger health in several ways, but water is one important way.

Some of the problems were identified via an EPA environmental justice grant. Uranium contamination is actually causing people to die on the reservation. The Energy Department and the EPA are both working to clean up these sites, but the projects have a long way to go and people are still exposed to toxics and radiation. Now the Trump administration is proposing cuts to the cleanup budget.

Drinking water at heart an environmental justice issue

As you can see, environmental justice issues come up with drinking water in many ways. One way we have barely mentioned is the original pollution of waters eventually used as a drinking source. An example is heavy-metal pollution from unlined, leaching coal-ash ponds — a problem in many U.S. regions.

Even when communities appeal for help to EPA on environmental justice grounds, they do not always get it. Look around your area for other examples of water being polluted near poor and minority populations. It may not be immediately obvious — land waste disposal operations or industrial sites may pollute aquifers used for drinking water.

There are some resources for reporting on drinking water. Search a list of drinking water systems here. Have you looked at your area’s Consumer Confidence Report? Have you checked for drinking water violations on EPA’s ECHO database? Have you talked to environmental justice groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network?

The important thing to remember, though, is that the worst cases probably won’t be in any database. Because they are private, or small or temporary, or under the radar, on the reservation or outside the law, they may not be covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Use your eyes and empathic imagination. What do the homeless people near you drink? How about the resident of that trailer parked all summer by the river? Or the people in Puerto Rico (may require subscription) whose drinking water systems were devastated by Hurricane Maria?

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's Issue Backgrounders and TipSheet columns, directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet and also compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 13. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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