Connecting the Dots Between Race and Unsafe Drinking Water


NJ Spotlight


If you live in a community of color, the drinking water provided to your home is more likely to come from systems with a history of repeated violations of federal safe water regulations, according to a new report.

The study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Coming Clean and Environmental Justice Heath Alliance, analyzed three years of federal data involving violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act and suggested it reinforces long-standing arguments by environmental justice advocates that there is unequal access to clean drinking water.

Drinking water systems that constantly violated the law for years were 40 percent more likely to occur in places with higher percentages of residents who were people of color, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency from 2016 to 2019.

“As a scientist, I was surprised to find that race had the strongest relationship to the length of time people had to live with drinking water violations. No one should have to wonder about the safety of their water every time they turn on their tap,’’ said Kristi Pollen Fedinick, director of science and data at NRDC.

The report’s findings occur at a time when long-ignored drinking water problems with systems delivering unsafe supplies to urban populations in Flint, Michigan and Newark have become major sources of contention, as well as those areas suffering from poor air quality because of congestion, traffic and pollution from factories and power plants.

In Newark, high levels of lead in drinking water — caused by leaching of the contaminant from lead service lines — have led to widespread concerns about the safety of drinking water not only in schools, but thousands of homes. In response, the city has begun a three-year effort to replace all lead service lines in Newark.

“What we have found in Newark is that its residents continue to be besieged with untenable living conditions, poverty and a myriad of health concerns exacerbated by drinking water contaminated with dangerous levels of lead,’’ said Yvette Jordan of NEW Caucus, a group of public school teachers who have sued Newark to secure safe drinking water.

“I’m concerned about my health and what this exposure means for my students, since even low levels of lead can impair children’s brain development,’’ she said. Jordan’s own home has tested for lead levels three times the recommended federal action level.

Failure to report violations

The report documents roughly 170,000 violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, ranging from exceeding health-based standards for lead and copper to arsenic and nitrates. Some systems also were faulted for even failing to report violations.

Small systems — that serve less than 3,300 people — were responsible for more than 80 percent of violations, according to the report.

The report said the findings reflect a disinvestment in the repair of water systems, a problem that is widespread in an aging nationwide water system that has been starved of funding in recent years. In New Jersey, the estimated cost of fixing its drinking water infrastructure has been projected at $8 billion.

Earlier this year, the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection told state lawmakers it could cost as much as $2.3 billion to replace 350,000 lead service lines in New Jersey.

“All people deserve safe drinking water, wherever they live, but our national water law has failed,’’ said Pullen Fedinick. “Nearly 130 million people in the United States live with drinking water violations, often putting their health at risk. We need Congress and the states to take action on the Safe Drinking Water Act.’’

To that end, the report recommends improving the law and start by identifying and funding water infrastructure projects for communities of color, and preventing discharges from industrial and agribusinesses that foul drinking water supplies.

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