Clean Water and the Environmental Justice Movement

By Lauren Berg

Many consider it self-evident that everyone should have access to safe, clean drinking water. In fact, the United Nations has even declared access to clean water a human right. “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life of human dignity,” the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated in 2003. “It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” Unfortunately, despite the overall wealth and prosperity of America, access to safe drinking water is not a guarantee.

USA Today reported that as many as 63 million Americans were exposed to unsafe drinking water between 2007 and 2017. Unclean water can cause serious and costly health issues, and  studies have found that poor and minority communities across the U.S. are disproportionately affected by polluted waters. Advocates refer to the imbalance of environmental risk and exposure to pollution by poor and minority communities as environmental injustice. The National Humanities Center defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Act was passed by Congress in 1974; its purpose was to protect groundwater and other drinking sources provided to the public. Since then the EPA has been in charge of monitoring all drinking water on a federal level, by setting the national standards, and examining the health risk level of contaminants found in public drinking water.

In recent years, the protection and provision of clean water for the public has become a focal point of public health. The consequences of neglecting this responsibility have also become quite evident. Flint, Michigan is one of many examples of a poor community bearing the brunt of an environmental crisis, with 40 percent of Flint’s population living below the poverty line. In Flint, 12 people died of Legionnaires disease linked to contaminated water in 2014. An additional 6,000 to 12,000 children were exposed to lead in their water from old pipes, a hazard that  also caused a 58 percent spike in fetal deaths. Many consider Flint’s crisis the result of environmental racism; the majority of its population (56%) is black, significant because its state is predominantly white. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s report did indeed find that racism played a role in Flint’s water crisis.

Once again, poor communities of color are disproportionately bearing the brunt of environmental injustice right in my backyard.

Arthur Horwitz, co-chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, said during the investigation, "We are not suggesting that those making decisions related to this crisis were racists, or meant to treat Flint any differently because it is a community of color. Rather, the response is the result of implicit bias and the history of systemic racism that was built into the foundation of Flint."

Hitting Close to Home

Clean water is something that is easily taken for granted, especially in highly developed areas. Like many issues, it can be hard to sympathize with another city’s plight if we are not experiencing it ourselves. I certainly didn’t give much thought to the issue of clean water until my own hometown was affected.

In 2016 – the same year that Flint, Michigan, announced its water crisis – my hometown of Newburgh, New York, declared a state of emergency. The EPA had lowered the standards for acceptable levels of perfluorooctanesulfonic (PFOS) and perfluorooctane (PFOA) in drinking water from 0.4 ppb (parts per billion) to 0.07 ppb. This policy change allowed the increase of PFOS and PFOA until they reached unhealthy levels in the city of Newburgh’s reservoir.

A main source of these chemicals, it was discovered, was the use of firefighting foam at Stewart Air National Guard Base, which borders a creek leading to Newburgh’s reservoir, Washington Lake. The city immediately began using alternative water sources, and blood tests were made available to determine residents’ exposure levels to the contaminants. The Guard Base was designated a Superfund site later that year. A Superfund site is an area of contaminated land containing hazardous waste making it a candidate for EPA clean-up because of its risk to human health and/or the environment. As of May 2019, the Department of Defense is still in the process of cleaning Washington Lake, especially since more foam was spilled as late as April 2019. New York state officially banned the chemicals in firefighting foam on May 19, 2019.

What are PFOA and PFOS, and why are they suddenly so dangerous? Both are industrial man-made chemicals that can seep into ground waters used for drinking. High levels of PFOA and PFOS are linked to chronic kidney disease in adults, as well as several forms of cancer. The EPA labeled PFOS and PFOA as “emerging contaminants” in 2014, stating,

PFOS and PFOA are extremely persistent in the environment and resistant to typical environmental degradation processes. As a result, they are widely distributed across the higher trophic levels and are found in soil, air, and groundwater at sites across the United States. The toxicity, mobility, and bioaccumulation of potential of PFOS and PFOA pose potential adverse effects for the environment and human health.

City of Newburgh residents are particularly concerned about how they can protect their watershed in the future, especially because the city’s water source is located in the town of Newburgh, which is a separate municipality. This means that elected city officials have no jurisdiction over their water source and the surrounding watershed because the town board controls the zoning and approval of development on the land around Washington Lake. Though the town borders the city, it uses a different reservoir which was unaffected by the contaminants. The town of Newburgh’s population is 76 percent white, only seven percent of which fall below the poverty line. The city of Newburgh’s population, in contrast, is mostly black or Latino and 31 percent fall below the poverty line. Once again, poor communities of color are disproportionately bearing the brunt of environmental injustice right in my backyard.

Tensions have escalated in recent years as the town of Newburgh officials have purchased land around the reservoir to protect the town’s watershed, but continue to approve development projects that would negatively impact the city’s watershed. Washington Lake is already extremely overdeveloped, with major highways intersecting wetlands in addition to the adjacent air base.

In November 2018, dozens of city residents and public officials attended a town public hearing to protest the newest development project in their watershed. The planning board, however, moved forward and approved the development because the land was zoned for such use.

“This is about a general degradation [of our watershed],” Tamsin Hollo, a member of the Newburgh Clean Water Project, said at the hearing. “Many of us in this room have friends who are sick… [or] who are wondering when they are going to get sick in the future.”

Our Responsibility

The government of a political community is responsible for  creating and enforcing laws that promote the safety and welfare of its inhabitants. According to the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on the environment, “Human well-being depends on a clean environment. Accordingly, love of our neighbors, including future generations, forbids pollution and other degradations that may do real harm.” It is the role of public officials to protect something as invaluable and impactful as water, not just for their own residents but for neighboring residents as well. This is especially true if one community has authority over another that is more impoverished or comprised of predominantly minority residents.

The huge risks associated with unclean water (as seen in Flint) should make this issue a top priority for government agencies. Flint and Newburgh represent just two specific examples of the nation’s water pollution problem. Other culprits of unclean water include raw sewage discharges, chemicals dumped from factories, agricultural runoff, urbanization, the increasing use of synthetic substances, oil spills, aging pipes and infrastructure, and human litter. Children are especially at risk. Globally 6,000 children die of water-related diseases every day. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), “Young children are the first to get sick and die from waterborne and sanitation-related illnesses.” Lead-poisoning is linked to behavioral and learning disorders in children, as well as damage to the brain and nervous system. Adults are also at risk from water pollutants. Dangerous chemicals and pesticides can have long term effects on the nervous system, and in many cases cause various forms of cancer. Both the short-term and long-term negative impacts of unclean water require a quick and thorough response from the government.

While government plays an obvious and essential role, civil society institutions and citizens can and should respond to these crises and environmental justice issues as well. Local volunteers often work with non-profit environmental groups to monitor water quality. Residents can report issues and observations to the EPA or their state’s Department of Conservation. Citizens can attend town meetings and talk to their elected officials about decisions affecting the land around their watershed. Residents can play just as important a role in protecting their access to clean water as the government does.

Other sectors can participate in environmental justice as well. Businesses can commit to clean practices or eco-friendly products beyond what current regulations require of them. Municipalities can invest in green spaces around their water sources or create laws protecting important ecosystems like wetlands. Companies can donate to impacted areas by providing resources where water contamination has occurred. By August 2019 Nestle will have donated approximately 6.5 million bottles of water to Flint.

As Christians, we are called to steward God’s creation. Therefore, the Church should also participate in environmental justice issues. According to the CPJ’s Guideline on the environment, “This world is God’s creation. Human creatures – made in God’s image – bear a unique responsibility to develop and care for it. Human stewardship should reflect God’s ongoing care for creation.” Likewise, the Church has an obligation to serve “the least of these,” to love its neighbors, and to stand up against injustice. In the midst of Flint’s water crisis, churches from Knoxville, Tennessee, donated 70,000 pounds of water to the city. Newburgh residents hope that churches and other religious organizations would similarly advocate for the health of their community.

“What I would like to see is a broader discussion beyond environmental groups. What I would like to see is churches standing up for our environment,” said Newburgh resident Tamsin Hollo in a private interview.

In addition to donations, churches can and should use their resources and influence to advocate for the health of communities to government officials. The Church can retroactively address the symptoms of a problem, but sometimes it takes advocating for stronger policies to ensure that the government is truly taking responsibility for all citizens’ health with preventative measures.

Clean drinking water is an essential aspect of a healthy community. Unfortunately, contaminated water impacts thousands of towns and cities across America, not just Flint and Newburgh. The health and environmental risks associated with unclean water make this issue an urgent one for government, citizens, and civil society institutions to address. Our communities cannot simply react to the problem, we are also obligated to prevent water contamination and pollution in the first place. This is especially true when vulnerable minority and poor populations are at risk.

Lauren Berg is a freelance writer and journalist originally hailing from New York's scenic Hudson Valley.


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