Black communities face dangerous clean water and environmental risks
Clean water is essential to life. However, the climate crisis, outdated water infrastructure and damaging environmental policies from the Trump administration potentially could lead to disastrous health and home crises in African American communities.
Around the country, deteriorating municipal water infrastructure has a devastating effect, particularly on African American women and children. Bottle-fed infants, who consume mostly formula mixed with tap water, can ingest high levels of lead. As a result, African American children are three times more likely than white children to have elevated blood lead levels.
The leaching of lead from pipes in Flint, Mich., not only caused contamination of residential tap water, but it had profound consequences on the health of the city’s African American women and babies. Studies have raised concerns that the exposure of Flint’s residents, who are more than 50 percent black, may have impacted fertility, fetal development, infant health and contributed to learning disabilities among children.
Flint is an example of a man-made disaster. Climate change and natural disasters also can disproportionately impact communities of color.
Black women were among the worst affected by Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed. Even before the storm, 37 percent of black women and girls in New Orleans were living in poverty, compared to just 9.5 percent of white women and girls. When Katrina struck New Orleans, these women made up 80 percent of the people unable to evacuate the city before the storm. Research showed that the experience of trauma, instability and extreme loss by these women and girls resulted in long-term chronic stress, depression, anxiety, and on-going post-traumatic stress disorder.
Americans depend on a functioning water infrastructure to bring them clean drinking water and commonsense policies that protect the wetlands that absorb floodwaters and filter pollution and keep local rivers and lakes safe for their families to enjoy. Yet in many regions of the country, communities are served by outdated systems, some more than 100 years old. In Philadelphia, water pipes installed before the Civil War are still in use. Pipes, treatment facilities and storage facilities have exceeded their intended lifespans and are breaking down.
Climate change is adding further stress to our water systems. Instead of action to strengthen protections for clean water, the federal government has reduced water-related spending in recent decades and rolled back Clean Water Act protections for many vital bodies of water.
The Black Women’s Health Imperative is part of the Clean Water for All Coalition — a broad coalition of environmental, health, equity-focused, conservation, sportsmen and community groups — that is working to advance policy solutions to help tackle America’s water infrastructure crisis and improve the health of our communities, especially low-income and African American communities.
Our report, “Water, Health, and Equity: The Infrastructure Crisis Facing Low-Income Communities & Communities of Color — and How to Solve It,” offers insight into why low-income communities and African Americans carry disproportionate burdens from climate change and deteriorating water infrastructure.
While cities are rebuilding or repairing their water systems, programs supporting natural infrastructure could improve water-use efficiency by using green roofs and rain gardens to capture stormwater instead of relying on single-purpose underground tanks. And states could restore floodplains instead of building levees.
Instead, the administration has rolled back 95 environmental safeguards that keep Americans healthy and safe. The Navigable Waters Protection Rule, or “Dirty Water Rule,” strips Clean Water Act protections from half the country’s wetlands and millions of stream miles. The administration’s demolishing of the Clean Water Act will benefit oil, gas and mining industries, homebuilding companies and farmers but hurt low-income and first-time homeowners.
President Trump’s plan of investments will be paid for through cuts in other infrastructure programs. Instead of helping low-income communities, it would force state and local governments and private businesses to bear the vast majority of the cost. Historically, our research found that private investors have declined to provide water services to low-income communities because doing so is not profitable.
One vital solution to improve municipal infrastructure, protect the environment and mitigate harmful risks to communities is to maintain and enforce sound environmental policies. These policies include long-term impact analysis, project and design reviews and regular maintenance and monitoring.
We should not have a two-tiered system where the wealthy have access to water that is clean and safe for their families, while low-income communities must accept water and wastewater systems that pose risks to their health and environment. Every human being needs safe, clean water to live healthy lives.
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