Equity Legal Services, Inc.
Natural Resources Defense Council
Water crises have increasingly captured public attention. You may think of
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
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.
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
In early 2016,
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.
Ultimately, NRDC and the Newark Education Workers’ Caucus (NEW Caucus), a group of public school teachers, sued for
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
There are an estimated 6-10 million lead service lines still in use across the country. Hopefully, federal
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?
Despite the enormous daily barriers, including being
Residents of Centreville began mobilizing and have now banded together as a committee called
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
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
For more information about common and emerging water justice issues and how you can help, check out the authors’
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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