WASHINGTON, D.C. – Race bears the strongest relationship to slow and ineffective enforcement of the federal drinking water law in communities across the nation, according to a new report. 

“Watered Down Justice” is a new analysis of EPA data that confirms there is unequal access to safe drinking water, based most strongly on race, a scientific conclusion that mirrors the lived experience of people of color and low-income residents in the United States.

The report – co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Coming Clean, and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA) – reinforces the widely held belief that ongoing water contamination in majority-Black communities like Flint, Mich., and Newark, N.J., is related to a history of community disinvestment, residential segregation, and discrimination.

“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. But as a Black woman, I was not surprised at all,” said Dr. Kristi Pullen Fedinick, director of Science and Data at NRDC. “It is a travesty that the nation's drinking water laws does not protect everyone equally. No one should have to wonder about the safety of their water every time they turn on their tap.” 

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 EPA data from 2016-2019 analyzed in the report. Even when actions were taken to compel systems to fix their violations, it took longer for water systems in communities of color to come back into compliance.

“Every child deserves safe drinking water but, today, race still matters. The sad reality that communities of color are still more likely to face unsafe drinking water makes it clear that we have a lot farther to go. For decades communities across the country have been leading a movement for environmental and economic justice; yet, even 55 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the law still does not ensure that the color of your skin won't mean you're more likely to drink polluted water,” said Michele Roberts, national co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance. "It has been nearly 30 years since the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit formally challenged environmental racism. That's why we're renewing our call for the moral and political will to find justice for our communities and equitable access to safe drinking water for everyone.”

Ethnicity and language spoken had the strongest relationship to serious longstanding violations and ineffective enforcement of the nation’s drinking water law, the Safe Drinking Water Act. Aging, underdeveloped, and underfunded water infrastructure contributes to unsafe water conditions, as does dysfunction of the law, in part because some dangerous contaminants are not regulated. Drinking contaminated water is linked to high costs to human health, including cancer, compromised fertility, developmental effects, serious infections and more.

"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. At its core, environmental justice hits the black and brown community in ways that are not seen or felt immediately. As a public school teacher, I see the effects of this every day. More importantly, I witness the apathy and naivete from my students because of a lack of education regarding environmental justice. This report highlights the steps that are necessary to begin to turn the collective tide towards health equity," said Yvette Jordan, of NEW Caucus, a group of public school teachers who have sued Newark to secure safe drinking water.

Large cities are not the only places with water contamination. Small systems – those that serve less than 3,300 people – were responsible for more than 80 percent of all violations.

“California rural communities depend on small water systems to fulfill daily basic needs. Farm working families of Latino and Mexican Indigenous origin, many of them single-mother households face social and economic barriers such as language and inaccessibility to healthcare.  They should not have to endure the burden of unsafe drinking water in addition to other environmental contaminants,” said Suguet Lopez, executive director of Lideres Campesinas, the Women Farmworker Leadership Network.

“All people deserve safe drinking water, wherever they live, but our national water law has failed. Nearly 130 million people in the United States live with drinking water violations, often putting their health at risk. Societal inequality and disinvestment exacerbate this in communities of color. We need Congress and the states to take action to fix the Safe Drinking Water Act, while increasing enforcement,” said Pullen Fedinick.

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