Environmental injustice: Access and affordability of clean water
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On April 25, 2014, the city of Flint, Mich., suffered one of the greatest tragedies in our nation’s history. With a declining economy and a growing deficit, Flint began using the Flint River, a waterway with severely dangerous lead levels and contamination, as a water source to lower state costs. Twelve people have died, many have become ill, and unfortunately, hardworking American families have had to suffer. Flint residents did not cause this man-made catastrophe, but are the ones being punished.

Congress allocated $170 million in federal aid for Flint families, but the people of Flint still face current and long-term challenges to their health and their infrastructure. As a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, I have called for a thorough update on the allocation and outcome of the of the federal aid package. This tragedy should never have happened in Flint, and it should never happen anywhere in America ever again.


However, Flint is not alone. In the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the U.S. received a D grade for its Drinking Water. Eighty two percent of states have reported dangerous contamination levels in their drinking water. In the U.S., there are 1.2 million miles of lead pipes for water, many of which need to be replaced. Our crumbling infrastructure stands to have devastating long-term health consequences when millions of Americans are at risk of dangerous lead poisoning. The American people deserve safe, clean water from their homes, their schools, their jobs and their public spaces.

As a member of the Executive Board of the Congressional Black Caucus, I am proud to join my colleagues in introducing the Jobs and Justice Act, a 1,300 page legislative agenda that maps out what is needed to increase the upward social mobility of black families, and help ensure equal protection under the law.

This omnibus legislation includes a provision to address health equity including an emphasis on the importance of environmental health protections such as policies that preserve and protect access to clean air and clean water.

However, clean water is not truly “accessible” if it is not first affordable. Water infrastructure is more expensive than most other infrastructure costs, such as roads, railroads and bridges. When there is poor water infrastructure, the costs of maintenance or replacement is passed on to the consumer.

In short, the worse the water infrastructure, the higher the costs stand to be for the most vulnerable communities. Midsize and large cities with declining populations are generally more economically distressed, having higher poverty and unemployment rates, and lower per capita income than growing cities.

In Detroit, 14 percent of customers were unable to pay their water bills, the second largest percentage of any city; Gary, Ind., is first with 31 percent. Since 2014, 101,000 homes in Detroit have had their water shutoff.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates Michigan needs to invest at least $15.87 billion to fix our state’s water and wastewater infrastructure. The American Water Works Association estimates that the U.S. needs to invest over $1 trillion to fix our nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure.

There is certainly a high cost to fix our infrastructure problems in America. But the cost is much greater to our communities, to our country to future generations and the future of our economy if we continue to drag our feet on addressing our infrastructure needs that are desperately needed in America.

As our infrastructure ages and continues to crumble, consumers and taxpayers bear the greatest burden. Now is the time to act and rebuild. We need real plans and we need real funding to make the plans come to light.

America’s infrastructure, due to its extensive needs have always benefitted from a majority of support from federal funding. The president’s infrastructure plan steers clear from that model. A plan that would put 80 percent of the burden on states and local government while requiring only 20 percent federal funding is not a plan for success. The American people need and deserve the support of their federal government. America needs a comprehensive infrastructure plan to address the impact on our communities and our economy.

A failing infrastructure limits job creation, slows our economic growth and puts our country’s national security and sustainability following a national disaster at risk. Environmental justice and economic development go hand-in-hand. And unfortunately, communities of color, impoverished and rural communities have historically suffered disproportionately from environmental injustices in America.

This is about a basic human right, a fix for our infrastructure needs and a call for environmental justice. The stakes are too high and the cost is too great to delay action on America’s infrastructure needs. We need proactive change. We need fair and comprehensive infrastructure policies and leadership to get us where we need to be. It’s time to rebuild.

Lawrence represents the 14th District of Michigan and is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.