Miss Roberts, EJHA advocates for just and sustainable solutions to the hazards faced by communities living near high-risk chemical and energy facilities. What are those hazards? How many people does this affect in the USA?
Sadly, in the US there are many communities who live in the shadows of some of the most appalling industrial activities. Over 124 million Americans live within a fenceline zone of one or more hazardous chemical facilities. These communities face not only the constant threat of catastrophic explosion, chemical spills, or poison gas release but they are often also affected by the long-term exposure to dangerous substances in their air or water.
Our studies show people living within a three-mile 'fenceline' zone of hazardous chemical facilities are disproportionately people of color and poor people and they suffer a greater risk of cancer and respiratory illness caused by air pollution. We also know that the contamination of water with chemicals can lead to cancer, developmental effects, compromised fertility, and nervous system effects.
In the USA, there are quite a few laws and regulations protecting public health. Yet there were several instances of large-scale water contamination in the USA in the last couple of years. How can this be?
The Safe Drinking Water Act from 1974 is supposed to ensure access to safe drinking water across the country, but the law clearly has not been enforced equally for everyone. Crumbling infrastructure, limited funding and lax enforcement of laws are major water challenges threatening public health. An analysis in 2017 showed that nearly a quarter of the US population was served by drinking water systems that are in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
A lot of people even outside the US have heard of Flint, Michigan. The city has become nearly synonymous with the complete failure of protecting people’s health. Thousands in Flint were exposed to lead poisoning when the water supply was changed to inadequately treated, highly corrosive water from the Flint River in 2015. What happened in Flint was the result of intentional, ill-considered, and unlawful decisions, and it is not an isolated case.
In a reflection you wrote for the WCC-EWN’s Seven Weeks for Water you say that “systemic racism [is] the root cause over and over again.” What do you mean by that?
There is a disturbing relationship between race and drinking water violations. People of color and low-income populations are more likely to live with aging, underdeveloped and under-funded water infrastructure. Largely due to our history of racial segregation in the US, these communities have been grossly ignored and overlooked.
In Flint, too, the majority-Black community’s calls for help were ignored. There are many studies about environmental justice communities that consistently show that race and income are the reasons for the disproportionate health, economic and environmental impacts experienced by their communities.
What kinds of solutions do you advocate to achieve water justice for all?
There are a lot of common-sense solutions that can ensure safe water for all communities. Funding for water infrastructure projects should be increased, especially in environmental justice communities. Public authorities must be held accountable for full enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Identifying, supporting, and actively engaging disproportionately affected communities is key. We need to use all available tools to eliminate systemic racism and address its impacts on environmental justice, joining efforts like the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform that works towards economic, racial, climate, and environmental justice.
EJHA’s approach is to bring together scientists, grassroots community groups, policy experts, and major environmental organizations to work collaboratively and transform how our nation preserves and protects our drinking water. By uniting experts from a wide range of fields, bringing unlikely partners together, and elevating the voices of those living on the front lines, we have both the expertise and the authority to make a difference.
Links and recommended resources
- Video: Life at the Fenceline https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTN6vAIse-8
- Video: No community left behind https://ajustclimate.org/stories.html
- The Equitable and Just National Climate Platform: www.ajustclimate.org.
- Principles of Environmental Justice adopted by the first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. http://lvejo.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/ej-jemez-principles.pdf
- EJHA’s “Watered Down Justice” report on drinking water violations in the US https://comingcleaninc.org/assets/media/documents/WateredDownJustice%20ENG%2019-09-A_08%20FINAL.pdf
- Reflection: "The rainbow color of the pilgrimage of water justice in North America", by Michele Roberts (Seven Weeks for Water 2021)