Unsafe Water More Common in Communities of Color

When it comes to safe drinking water in America, race still matters.

In this video, Elizabeth Martinez, of Lideres Campesinas—and a resident of Kern County, California—talks about the fears and challenges of living in a county with a long history of violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Michele Roberts of Environmental Justice Health Alliance and NRDC’s Kristi Pullen Fedinick highlight their analysis of data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that confirms there is unequal access to safe drinking water, based most strongly on race.

This is a transcript of the video.

Elizabeth Martinez, Lideres Campesinas: Right now I'm going to go fill up my water jugs. I usually do it once a week. You know, this is one of many water stations that we have due to poor water quality in our city. Kern County has a history of violations when it comes to safe drinking water. That is something that scares me and scares my community as well. I started hearing about the water having arsenic probably around 12 years ago. I got very worried because then I started noticing people were complaining about hair loss, about skin issues, stomach pain. We believe it's linked to the arsenic in the water. Another chemical would be the 1,2,3-TCP. And what I know about this chemical is that it also, it can cause cancer. What they told us is that we should not take long showers or steamy showers due to this contaminant in the water.

Michele L. Roberts, Environmental Justice Health Alliance: People trust the regulatory agencies in the government to provide them with clean and healthy, safe drinking water. However, not all communities are created equal.

Kristi Pullen Fedinick, NRDC: I've been studying drinking water for about 10 years. And what Flint really brought home for me was that there could be a relationship between race and income and drinking water violations. And so what I really wanted to do was try to understand the relationship between those things.

Roberts: I was interested in this research because our communities need this to better articulate the challenges that they have.

Pullen Fedinick: I pulled data from the Safe Drinking Water Act to determine where violations were happening throughout the United States. One of the major findings of our study is that drinking water protections are not fairly distributed across all communities. Our analysis found that a number of communities shouldered a heavier burden: communities of color, low-income communities, and communities that don't have access to adequate housing and transportation options.

Roberts: There are more than 3,000 counties in the United States, and we found that 400 of those, race was a factor with respect to the water issue. That's big for us. That shows that race significantly matters.

Pullen Fedinick: Thinking about the problem as a scientist, I was shocked to see that there was a statistically significant relationship between the social factors we studied and drinking water violations. As a black woman, though, I wasn't surprised to see that the relationship existed. We know that the course of history has shown that there are certain populations that are marginalized, and it isn't surprising that communities that are already overburdened by so many other things in their environment are also overburdened by this.

Martinez: I decided to stop using tap water for boiling my beans, cooking, many years ago, due to learning about my neighbors dying of cancer. My water bill ranges from $100, $120 a month. Besides that, I have to purchase water. I'll be spending around $68 to $70 a month. It makes me feel mad. Mad because I'm paying for water that's contaminated. I'm a community organizer. I work for Lideres Campesinas and I also educate residents on different issues. And most of them have concerns about access to safe drinking water. Our children won't be able to live a healthy, quality life if we don't fight for all these issues. This community is mostly farmworkers, low-income and Spanish-speaking. It's challenging for them to attend to meetings, workshops, or the water board, and it's unfair because they don't need to be spending their time doing all this advocacy when they deserve and they have the right for safe drinking water. Our communities are mostly Latino, African-American communities, and I believe that that's one reason why there are so many violations compared to other counties in California. We have many environmental hazards. There's the agriculture, the pesticides, the oil and gas industry. Then the dairy farms that create a lot of dust, odors. Policies should be in place. You know, we shouldn't be exposed to so many contaminants that's affecting our health.

Pullen Fedinick: My hope is that this report acts as a way to support and highlight the experiences of community members across the country. People like Elizabeth Martinez that can't drink her water and has to go somewhere to purchase water even though she's paying her bills.

Roberts: We are holding the solutions and have been for a very long time. There has been an absence of political will to make sure that a portion of this country are able to access clean water, access clean air, and live on clean land.

Martinez: I believe we have to work harder to get our voices heard. Safe drinking water should be a right. Water is life. You know, we shouldn't be paying our high bills for something that's going to kill us.

Roberts: At the end of the day, race matters when it comes to environmental injustices, and we must do something about it. We must.


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