“Voices being ignored”: Regulators fail to enforce water-pollution laws in communities of color

"For communities already facing severe burdens due to racism, social conditions, and/or environmental and health hazards, the inability to turn on a tap and receive clean, safe water is particularly devastating—and unjust."

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Five years ago the fact that some American communities were faced with not having access to safe water was brought to the attention and scrutiny of the public eye when it was revealed that residents of the city of Flint, Michigan were ingesting lead-poisoned water.

Since that time more and more people have become aware of problems like Flint’s happening all over the United States. What was once thought to be a problem mainly in third world countries many realized was a problem much closer to home.

Now a new report reveals that the problem of polluted water is much more likely to happen in communities of color, rather than in white, more affluent towns.

Watered Down Justice, a new study analyzing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data for 200,000 violations of the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, found that local and state authorities are completely neglecting Black and Brown communities. According to the analysis, local authorities and state regulators are failing to both address and report pollution violations in areas with many low-income people of color and non-native English speakers.

“The cost of that to human health could include things like cancer, compromised fertility, developmental effects, serious infections and more,” said co-author Kristi Pullen Fedinick. “You know, some of it is the voices being ignored.”

Overall the study found that the rate of drinking water violations increased in:

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities
  • Areas with more non-native English speakers
  • Areas with more people living under crowded housing conditions
  • Areas with more people with sparse access to transportation
Image credit: NRDC

Not only are the areas facing inadequate enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act, but they are also likely to stay in violation for much longer periods of time.

Image credit: NRDC

The report lists recommendations in several areas in order to effectively protect all communities:

  • Identify, Engage, and support disproportionately affected communities
  • Prevent water contamination
  • Act immediately to address crisis situations to prevent exposure
  • Fund water infrastructure projects, especially in environmental justice communities
  • Strengthen small systems
  • Enforce the law
  • Use all available tools
  • Understand, disclose, and plainly explain health threats and all effects of water contamination

“For communities already facing severe burdens due to racism, social conditions, and/or environmental and health hazards, the inability to turn on a tap and receive clean, safe water is particularly devastating—and unjust,” conclude the authors.

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