A neglected environmental justice issue: indoor plumbing

A neglected environmental justice issue: indoor plumbing
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It’s 2020 in one of the world’s wealthiest nations, yet some 2 million rural Americans lack access to adequate plumbing or sanitation — the running water and flushing toilets that most of us take for granted as essential to a decent life. Millions more are unable to obtain, or afford, clean drinking water.

Amid a national reckoning on race, we’ve seen new attention paid to environmental justice issues. Low-income communities and people of color are more likely to live in the shadow of power plants and other polluting facilities; they are also hit first and worst by the floods and heat waves of a changing climate. Access to clean water and sanitation is also a crucial environmental justice issue, but it is neglected in current policy and funding.

This year’s House EPA appropriation, which the Senate will surely reject as too “generous,” does little more than nod in the right direction. It includes a provision authorizing $13 billion in “emergency” funding for EPA without even mentioning environmental justice. It adds nothing to two paltry environmental justice grant programs that currently limit funding for our nation’s thousands of overburdened communities to $2.1 million. The House bill continues funding for a pair of existing federal programs that provide grants for basic drinking water and sanitation infrastructure — but those programs are far too limited to address the problem.  

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The problem is most urgent for communities of color. A report by DigDeep and the U.S. Water Alliance found that Native American households are 19 times as likely as white households to lack full plumbing; African-Americans and Latinos are twice as likely. Not surprisingly, those same communities suffer disproportionately from coronavirus. Infectious diseases thrive where handwashing is difficult.  

In the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the U.S., nearly a third of the population — 100,000 people lack adequate water facilities. The Washington Post reports that “counties containing Indian reservations have astonishingly high percentages of households without plumbing.” Sanitation and water problems also persist in the U.S.-Mexico border region, in rural areas in southwest Alabama and in parts of Appalachia such as Eastern Kentucky and Western Virginia, and elsewhere. 

Children in those places play in yards that flood with raw sewage and wastewater. Families drive for hours to fill barrels with household water or carry containers to public taps; some draw water from contaminated streams or springs. It is scarcely surprising that some observers compare conditions in parts of rural America to those in the developing world. 

Worse, a lack of indoor plumbing is only part of the problem. The number of people with nominal access to community water but who cannot afford it because user fees are too high is much larger than two million. For some, there may be no safe option at all: when the well water in Martin County, Ky., became brown and salty, the only alternative was to pay skyrocketing user rates for water from a dilapidated community system that sometimes delivers water that is discolored, smells like bleach, and makes children itch after bathing. More than 44 million people are served by water systems that have recently violated Safe Drinking Water Act water quality requirements. 

There are also widespread problems with well water. Nearly a quarter of the private wells tested by one federal agency contained water with unhealthy contaminants like arsenic, uranium, nitrates and E-coli; one out of six people in rural areas have experienced issues with safe drinking water and one out of eight report issues with their sewage system.

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Our nation has made great progress in building water infrastructure — facilities to store and distribute drinking water and to treat wastewater. In 1950, one in four U.S. households did not have flush toilets. Since 1973, EPA programs have provided more than $120 billion to fund wastewater and drinking water infrastructure. But that funding has declined to about a seventh of what it was in the 1970s. The communities left behind must compete for a share of the reduced funding. Moreover, that funding is not given in grants, but as loans that require repayments that can be crippling for small communities.   

A pair of EPA programs point the way to addressing the problem. Last year, EPA provided $54 million in grants for basic drinking water and sanitation in Alaskan villages and desperately poor U.S. communities along the Mexican border. Since 1996, the Alaska program has funded sustainable and affordable in‐home water and sanitation services, raising the share of that state’s communities with indoor plumbing from 50 percent to nearly 95 percent. The border program has funded safe drinking water for 70,000 homes and wastewater collection and treatment services to 673,000.   

These successful programs — though limited in scope and funding — show what can be done. It is time to provide the same type of funding to all of the communities in the U.S. that lack access to clean water and sanitation. Environmental justice requires that low-income, rural communities and people of color enjoy that right as fully as the rest of our nation’s people. 

David F. Coursen is a former EPA attorney and a member of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit organization of EPA alumni working to protect the agency's progress toward clean air, water, land and climate protection.