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Working with Communities on Water Justice Issues

Nicole D. Nelson

Equity Legal Services, Inc.

Michelle Amelia Newman

Natural Resources Defense Council

Water crises have increasingly captured public attention. You may think of residents’ struggles in Flint, Michigan, which significantly heightened awareness of the infrastructure crises facing cities with aging lead pipes delivering water to homes. Or the recent Texas electrical grid power outage, during which water service for millions of Texans was interrupted and some utilities were unable to provide safe water to homes even weeks after the winter storms.

Community water issues vary immensely, and a single community may face compounding issues of water quality, access, affordability, and/or infrastructure vulnerability. Within a city or even a single home, water conditions can vary day-to-day.

Most importantly, it is well established that water issues are not evenly distributed. For example, a joint study conducted by the NRDC, Coming Clean, and Environmental Justice Health Alliance indicates that drinking water violations correlate most strongly with race, ethnicity, and language spoken. Another report issued by DigDeep and U.S. Water Alliance found that more than 2 million Americans live without basic access to safe drinking water and sanitation, with race as the strongest predictor of access. So water justice is also an issue of racial justice.

We highlight two examples—Newark, New Jersey, and Centreville, Illinois—that illustrate drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater issues, and provide some recommendations for working thoughtfully and effectively with communities facing water issues.

Newark, New Jersey

In the wake of Flint, advocates across the country sought to understand the threat of lead in their drinking water. Lead generally enters drinking water in a home through service lines that connect the home with the water main under a street or through internal fixtures and plumbing. If drinking water is not properly treated, it can corrode lead from these lead pipes and fixtures.

Lead is particularly damaging to the brains of babies and young children. It can limit cognitive capacity and cause behavioral issues, with effects that can last for a lifetime. There is no safe level of exposure.

Since the early 1990s, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) has regulated lead in drinking water, along with over 90 other contaminants. The law sets an “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb), which, when exceeded, triggers actions and treatment techniques water systems must take to fix lead issues.

In early 2016, thirty Newark Public Schools reportedlead levels above the federal action level. This turned out to be the canary in the coal mine. Newark addressed fountains and faucets in the public schools, but residents were concerned because the same water system serves Newark’s homes and businesses. Due to citywide sampling deficiencies, the extent of the lead water crisis in Newark was masked for an unknown length of time.

Once the state started requiring more and better sampling, Newark exceeded the action level from the very first monitoring period in 2017, and official lead levels continued well above the action level for every monitoring period through mid-2020. Residents faced extremely high lead levels throughout this time, reaching 1000 ppb and higher.

NRDC attorneys sought public records to understand why lead levels were so high and what the city was doing about it. Meanwhile, a coalition of community members and environmental justice organizations in Newark sent a letter demanding more information and protective measures from the city, and community groups organized forums for mutual aid at local churches.

Ultimately, NRDC and the Newark Education Workers’ Caucus (NEW Caucus), a group of public school teachers, sued for several violations of SDWA related to failures of corrosion control treatment, improper sampling, and inadequate public education. Much of the lawsuit focused on getting emergency relief for city residents, like distributing water filters or bottled water citywide, especially to the most vulnerable.

In the end, to get lead out of water, you must remove lead pipes and any other sources of lead in the home. As a result of the community’s persistence in demanding transparency and safe water, Newark has embarked on one of the most aggressive lead service line replacement programs in the country, with a $120 million bond from Essex County, and is now on track to replace all lead lines at no direct cost to residents. The case settled earlier this year, with Newark committing to replace all lead service lines that it can identify through diligent efforts, continuing to provide free drinking water testing and filters for eligible residents, and additional public education and reporting to ensure Newark residents can continue to protect themselves.

There are an estimated 6-10 million lead service lines still in use across the country. Hopefully, federal water infrastructure proposals to eliminate lead service lines across the country will provide much-needed resources to accomplish this crucial task in other cities.

Centreville, Illinois

For many, our safe spaces are often our homes and our communities. These are the places where we rest after work, garden, entertain friends, take evening walks, or watch a favorite show. In his book, The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg, explored the importance of these places with an emphasis on community as the “third place.” Oldenburg explained that third places operate as safe spaces for community members to have conversations and mill about, almost like a second home. But what happens when a resident’s first place (home) and third place (community) have been disrupted by environmental hazards? It is difficult to imagine a space as safe when the possibility of rain means a high likelihood of flooding or raw sewage invading your home and sometimes a fear of drowning. Where do residents find solace in a community that has saddled them with decades of environmentally hazardous stressors such that surviving becomes the default?

Enter Centreville, Illinois, where residents have dealt with decades-long stormwater flooding and raw sewage overflows in their streets, yards, and homes from defunct sanitary sewer and drainage systems. Damages, ranging from eroded foundations to buckled floors, residents left without working furnaces and HVAC systems for months or years, ongoing mold and mosquito problems, and various health conditions triggered by the mold and exposure to constant standing water and sewage, all stem from local entities’ failures to maintain sanitary sewer and drainage systems. Centreville and much of the surrounding areas are located in a region referred to as the “American Bottom,” named for the low-lying features of the region. Continued neglect and indifference from officials over years has significantly exacerbated conditions in Centreville and hastened the current environmental crisis. Elected officials’ indifference and willingness to overlook this crisis has left the residents in Centreville to deal with the personal and financial fallout from inaction and neglect.

Despite the enormous daily barriers, including being one of the poorest cities in the state, the predominantly Black community of Centreville has been resilient and managed to find Black joy in the midst of the ongoing environmental crisis, injustice, and political indifference. As described by the Black American scholar Imani Perry, “Joy is not found in the absence of pain and suffering. It exists through it... Blackness is an immense and defiant joy...The trauma is repetitive... [yet] the capacity to access joy is a testament to the grace of living as a protest.

Residents of Centreville began mobilizing and have now banded together as a committee called Centreville Citizens for Change (CCC). This committee originated from community meetings with attorneys in late 2018 and has evolved into the present version that has been in existence since August of 2019. Prior to and since its inception, attorneys, scientists, and academics have worked alongside members of CCC to help bring to fruition their stated goals of stopping the flooding and sewage overflows in their homes and demanding access to functioning sanitation systems and potable water.

Concluding Thoughts

Water issues are widespread, and attorneys can help. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

First, water issues are massively underreported. Become familiar with the kinds of public reporting and data available from cities and states, but know that just because a particular system does not have violations on record does not mean there are no issues. Oversight can be lax, and, as in Newark, improper sampling can mask the full extent of health risks.

Second, stay informed about community water issues by engaging with local groups and activists. Listen to community members. In Centreville, decisions work from the community outward. This means that members of CCC express their priorities and vote on what actions should be taken. Then a coalition, including lawyers, works to implement what the CCC has directed. The participatory and democratic nature of the CCC and Centreville advocacy interrupts the power dynamic that typically accompanies lawyer-community and/or expert-community relationships, which traditionally leave little space for community voices or expertise, even though residents have borne the brunt of catastrophic decisions and policies. Work in Centreville reverses that dynamic, with a heavy emphasis on listening while the community directs the work and mission.

Finally, helping communities access financial and technical resources is critical. Some funding sources exist to help rural and underserved communities. But you can also bring other resources—your time and presence, your expertise or ability to conduct research and assist with public information requests, your access to scientists and other experts, and your understanding of local government processes and opportunities to raise community voices.

For more information about common and emerging water justice issues and how you can help, check out the authors’ Water Justice 101: A Survey of Common Issues and How Attorneys Can Help program, available from PLI Programs On Demand.

Nicole D. Nelson is the Founder and Executive Director of Equity Legal Services, Inc. (ELS) where she litigates on behalf of and works with residents in Centreville who have had to contend with hazardous environmental conditions for decades. Nicole also works with citizens in surrounding communities who are vulnerable to similar conditions.

Michelle Amelia Newman is a John Adams Litigation Fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Michelle has worked on litigation to advance safe drinking water in Newark, New Jersey; defended several national monuments against presidential rollbacks; and investigated pollution impacting vulnerable environmental justice communities in the Southeast.

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