Unsafe drinking water in three majority Black areas: the legacy of systemic racism in America
Environmental justice (EJ) is 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.
Fair treatment means no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies.
—Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental racism is inseparable from racial segregation. Residential segregation—which is itself a result of individual and systemic racism, including public policy choices at every level of government and exclusionary choices by financial actors—means that people of color are often concentrated in neighborhoods that have frequently been disempowered, both politically and financially.
For these reasons and more, neighborhoods with large non-white populations have historically seen lower property values, meaning that land in those areas is cheaper for industrial actors to acquire—leading to greater pollution. At the same time, policy choices have acted alongside financial factors to drive these dangerous uses toward communities of color and away from wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, thanks to imbalances in political power. Similarly, the harms of mobile sources of emissions such as cars and trucks have been concentrated in communities of color with less political power to resist them, through the siting of freeways and shipping centers, for example…historic patterns of segregation and wealth disparities have allowed white Americans to buy or inherit homes further away, while the forces of segregation and discrimination have prevented Black Americans from doing the same.
This cycle is perpetuated as existing pollution and industrial land use keeps property values low, preventing people of color from building wealth (and power) through property ownership. These environmental factors are used as justification, alongside well-documented reasons like school quality and “quality of life,” for white-dominated political systems and individuals to avoid integrating traditionally non-white neighborhoods. Political and financial systems like redlining and zoning amplify and perpetuate this cycle.
For a month, residents of Jackson, Mississippi, had to boil their water before their taps ran dry at the end of August. A combination of historic flooding and the failure of water pumps at the city’s treatment plants caused the catastrophic loss of water to most of the 170,000 people within the state capitol.
“The people of Jackson, Byram, Ridgeland and Hinds County are in day 32 of a boil-water notice,” five state senators wrote in a letter to Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) on August 29. “Water pressure issues are shutting down schools, businesses and government offices. Raw sewage discharge has closed the Pearl River. We need to act now. This issue is too important to wait until January and the 2023 legislative session.”
The issue in Jackson is not a new one. The original boil notice, predating the August floods, warned that high turbidity levels—a measure of particles suspended in water—rendered the tap water undrinkable. Water with elevated turbidity will appear cloudy and may contain harmful microbes that cause diarrhea, nausea, or other symptoms.
A winter storm last year similarly knocked out the water supply to Jackson as freezing temperatures burst pipes and water mains. It took weeks for water access to be restored and even longer for water to be clean enough to drink without boiling. Residents suffered through nearly-identical outages during winter storms over the past two decades:
Winter storms in past years — 1989, 1994, 2010, 2014 and most recently 2018 — have tested the city’s outdated water delivery system and caused widespread water main breaks and outages. Each time, the city has scrambled to make band-aid repairs, only to wait until the next catastrophe. Jackson isn’t alone in taking this approach, said Teodoro, the Wisconsin professor.
“The nature of local politics is that city governments will tend to neglect utilities until they break because they’re literally buried,” he said. “One of the things that is a perennial challenge for governments that operate water systems is that the quality of the water system is very hard for people to observe. But the price is very easy for them to observe.”
Aging and damaged infrastructure is only part of the story. Roughly a quarter of the residents of Jackson, a city that is nearly 83% Black, live below the poverty line. White families fled the capitol following the integration of public schools, eroding the tax base. Lower incomes means there’s far less public money for repairing the city’s infrastructure.
Furthermore, the more affluent—and more white—suburbs are not motivated to help the city cover the cost of fixing the water system. According to Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the sustained investments required to repair the immediate water distribution problems will cost at least $1 billion.
And don’t look to the state government for assistance. Gov. Reeves recently mocked Jackson during a speech in Hattiesburg. “I’ve got to tell you it is a great day to be in Hattiesburg. It’s also, as always, a great day to not be in Jackson,” Reeves said. Forrest County, home to Hattiesburg, just so happens to be a white-majority Republican stronghold in southern Mississippi. Days earlier, Reeves indicated he is open to privatizing Jackson’s water system—an idea that Mayor Lumumba quickly pushed back against:
“Privatization is the worst possible solution,” Lumumba says. “With the level of capital improvement that Jackson’s water facility needs, [a private company] would have to get a really, really hefty pound of flesh from our residents in order to make the profit that they’re looking to make on the system. For a city where affordability is already a significant challenge, it would essentially move our citizens from one state of misery to the next.”
Lumumba’s opposition is not without evidence. Privately owned water systems have higher water prices and are less affordable.
A March 2022 Cornell University study of the 500 largest water systems in the United States found that privatization often resulted in problems.
“What was disturbing about the 500 water systems is that private ones had higher rates and more affordability problems,” said Mildred Warner, a Cornell professor and an author of the study. “And this was true after we controlled for the age of the system and the source of the water.”
Where does that leave Jackson? The best chance of repairing the water system in any meaningful manner rests with the federal government. Both the EPA and DOJ have sent teams to Jackson to investigate the causes of the water crisis and assist local officials in resolving the issues. The Justice Department may go as far as bringing legal action against the city:
“We are prepared to file an action… but would hope this matter could be resolved with an enforceable agreement that is in the best interest of both the city and the United States,” wrote Todd Kim, an assistant attorney general with DOJ’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division. “We hope you will join us to discuss the path forward in our shared goal of ensuring reliable delivery of safe drinking water to the people of Jackson and Hinds County”
Kim goes on to state that DOJ believes that when it comes to Jackson water, “an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health exists, as evidenced by the roughly 300 boil water notices that have been issued over the past two years, the multiple line breaks during that same period, and the recent drinking water crisis.”
During routine testing in West Baltimore earlier this month, city officials found E. coli in water samples—and they still don’t know where it came from. The Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park area of the city is home to over 15,000 people and nearly 97% Black. Over half of the families live below the poverty line. Americans from other parts of the country probably only know of Sandtown-Winchester as the home of Freddie Gray.
The presence of E. coli bacteria indicates the water may have been contaminated by human or animal feces. It can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, and headaches, and may pose greater health risks for infants, young children, the elderly, and people with severely compromised immune systems. Residents of West Baltimore were told to boil their water for roughly a week.
The current situation in Baltimore, one of the most segregated cities in America, is a century in the making:
By the 1930s, black Americans had grown to 20 percent of Baltimore’s population but were confined to 2 percent of the city’s landmass. And there was desperate need for new housing, as both formal and informal segregation kept blacks from expanding neighborhoods or moving into white areas…In 1950—following complaints from white residents over plans to expand public housing—the mayor and the City Council agreed to limit future building to existing “slum sites” where the majority of blacks lived. As they had done for the past four decades, white leaders prepared to limit black migration in the city as much as possible….
There is much, much more to this story. The key part, however, is the remarkable stability of Baltimore’s segregation over time. By and large, the “Negro slums” of the 1910s are the depressed projects and vacant blocks of the 2010s.
About 400,000 Chicago homes are connected to the water main using lead pipes. A new analysis conducted by The Guardian illustrates the consequences of the city’s failure to replace the dangerous metal.
Out of 24,000 tests, approximately 1,000 homes had lead exceeding federal standards. A third of the tests were above the limits that are allowed for bottled water. Even low exposure to lead can be harmful to human health, particularly for children:
Young children, infants, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to lead because the physical and behavioral effects of lead occur at lower exposure levels in children than in adults. A dose of lead that would have little effect on an adult can have a significant effect on a child. In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.
Just as in Jackson and Baltimore, communities with a large minority presence have the highest levels of dangerous drinking water:
The analysis found that nine of the top 10 zip codes with the largest percentages of high test results were neighborhoods with majorities of Black and Hispanic residents, and there were dozens of homes with shockingly high lead levels. One home, in the majority-Black neighborhood of South Chicago, had lead levels of 1,100 parts per billion (ppb) – 73 times the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limit of 15ppb.
Some of the highest levels of lead in Chicago’s water is found in the South Side, where 93% of the population is Black. The buildings in this area are old, more likely to have lead pipes, and chronically underfunded—a product of decades of segregation and redlining.