Co-Authored by Brenda Santoyo, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization
Access to clean, safe, affordable water is a human right. And this pandemic has shown us that this human right can be the difference between life and death—especially for already overburdened communities. An inability to keep up with the rising costs of water over the last decade has often led to water shutoffs in homes throughout the Greater Chicagoland area. During a pandemic, a lack of running water continues to prevent Chicagoans from practicing proper handwashing, safe social distancing, and cleaning and disinfecting, putting more vulnerable communities at greater health risks than others.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has taken some important steps to ensure continued access to safe water, including a moratorium on water shutoffs that stopped interrupting water services in homes. However, this action did not reconnect the thousands of homes that are forced to live through the pandemic without water.
Shutoffs in Chicago’s Latinx Community
These water shutoffs create more significant challenges for Latinx communities. Immigrant communities affected by unemployment during the pandemic are unable to receive government assistance due to undocumented status, thus limiting their income for essential goods and services. With limited incomes comes the limitation of access to bottled water and faucet filters that would otherwise serve as a stopgap while residents await reconnection and renewed access to safe drinking water in their homes.
Although there are efforts by the City of Chicago and partner organizations aimed at distributing water to homes without water, neighborhood areas with limited community organizing efforts make that a challenge. In Chicagoland Latinx communities, close to 32.3% of all individuals work in the manufacturing and hospitality sectors. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in July the unemployment in those sectors was 8.6% and 25%, further highlighting residents' struggles that have amplified due to the pandemic.
The number of positive cases of COVID-19 in Latinx Chicagoland communities strongly compounds with the fact that these communities are some of the most disenfranchised communities in the area from an economic, environmental, and public health standpoint. As of mid-August the number of positive cases for COVID-19 in Berwyn is 1,939, Cicero 3,839, and between the ranges of 4,000 – 7000 for South Lawndale. Also, communities like South Lawndale and Cicero not only boast the highest number of positive cases for COVID-19, but according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency's (“EPA”) EJSCREEN, community characteristics in South Lawndale make this community more vulnerable to pollution than most communities in Illinois.
The demonstrated environmental conditions evidence a current context where community residents are experiencing adverse health and environmental conditions. Equally troubling, South Lawndale has historically experienced poorer air quality than other parts of Chicago due to its proximity to polluting industries. It also encompasses the Little Village Industrial Corridor.
Cumulative Environmental Burdens
The City of Chicago's Department of Planning and Development acknowledges that many people with asthma, COPD, and heart disease live in areas near the Industrial Corridor. Speaking of the Industrial Corridor, the intense impact of the demolition of the Crawford Coal Plant in April had the potential to disrupt lead service lines and water flows in the area putting many homes in Little Village at risk of consuming unsafe drinking water. After speaking with residents living within a few blocks’ radius of the Crawford Coal Plant, they affirmed changes in looks, tastes, and smells of the water in their homes following the implosion. After deliberation with the City of Chicago, it was asserted that the implosion may have changed the position of the water valves in the city’s water system, restricting water flows, releasing stagnant water, and changed flow patterns impacting the quality of water in people’s homes.
The Crawford Coal Plant implosion also released a massive, polluted dust cloud in the air, further contaminating a densely populated community that already struggles with respiratory diseases amidst a pandemic caused by a respiratory illness. This demolition is especially detrimental as the Latinx immigrant community already faces many environmental burdens that put them at higher risk for adverse health outcomes.
These environmental injustices detrimentally impact Black and brown communities during this time of the coronavirus pandemic. Harvard's School of Public Health conducted a national study that linked an 8% increased likelihood of coronavirus death for every 1% increase in particulate matter 2.5. Certain chemicals present in the air have shown to cause respiratory health problems, with most of these harmful pollutants being present in the air in South Lawndale relative to most communities in the entire state of Illinois.
It may be costly to address the challenge of ensuring clean water in Chicago and its surrounding areas, as there are thousands of lead service lines throughout the county. However, the outdated lead service line infrastructures connecting to homes cost residents even more when considering the adverse social, economic, and health impacts related to the poor quality of drinking water residents of these communities unknowingly consume. That’s why it is critical for Chicagoland municipalities and state officials to work together to identify a dedicated source of funding to tackle such issues throughout the region and beyond - one that does not place a burden on homeowners and communities with low-income residents to pay out of pocket. As Chicago required lead service lines until 1986, the burden of covering cost should be borne by the government, not by struggling communities. That’s why following Chicago’s recent announcement of a new Lead Service Line Replacement Program, we called on the city to do more to ensure that the financial burden doesn’t fall on individual residents in already-overburdened communities. We’ve seen Chicago do this when it called on the federal government to aid with creating and funding a low-income water rate assistance program. And those collaborative efforts need to be extended to address long-term water affordability and infrastructure funding.
Overcoming Lack of Trust in our Agencies
In many of the Chicagoland Latinx communities, there is a lack of trust in their local leaders to address the environmental problems they are faced with. For the town of Cicero, which is close to 90% Latinx, Ixchel, an environmental justice organization, has played a significant role in exposing the town's discrepancies in water quality testing. Furthermore, they have been the ones taking the initiative to educate the residents on contaminants found in the homes' drinking water. In these Latinx neighborhoods, we see a pattern of community organizations and residents alike who are left to address the shortfalls and failures of the local government when it comes to addressing public health concerns.
In Berwyn, 61% of the population is Latinx, and faces shared struggles with the town of Cicero. Berwyn enacted a lead service line replacement program that falls on the homeowner's responsibility; even with programs that alleviate the cost of lead service line replacement, Berwyn does not take responsibility for the quality of water, creating a challenge for these households. According to data from Chicago’s Metropolitan Agency for Planning, 58% of individuals are homeowners in Berwyn. The remainder of residents are renters. With the current structure of the program the residents who rent homes will have no say in solutions geared towards improving their quality of water. As a renter, individuals of that home may not even be disclosed the information of being served by a lead service line unknowingly being affected by the issue.
Water is absolutely essential to life. Neglecting access to affordable and safe drinking water, especially to marginalized communities, continues to put these individuals at risk for developing adverse health outcomes. These Latinx communities in Chicagoland who already struggle with poor air and water quality, putting them at higher risk for respiratory and other diseases, are now facing the highest number of coronavirus rates in the state of Illinois due to the community's population density, the industry of employment, and limited access to healthcare. These environmental injustices must stop and the best place to start would be ensuring that all communities have access to clean, safe, affordable water regardless of income and ability to pay.
Brenda Santoyo is a Policy Associate at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), focusing her work on Water Justice. She takes part in advocacy, outreach, and research efforts surrounding water justice work throughout Chicago. Her water justice work encompasses the needs of communities at the frontline of environmental injustices. The work focuses on advocating for affordable water rate reform, ensuring access to safe quality water, and addressing flood disparities in underserved communities. Brenda holds a double Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Public Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).