Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Color and Class of Water

By Matthew PonticielloPublished April 27, 2019
Built on the genocide of one race and the enslavement of another, we can still see, feel and even taste the roots of our nation’s past. Environmental Justice and water rights are only a small window into the far reaching implication’s of slavery and genocide not so long ago.

     Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations” was meant to address and diminish disparities in access to, and protection of, clean water for vulnerable populations in the 1990s. However, recent events have brought EO 12898 back into the public eye. The color and class of water has been a secondary focus of political discourse since the 2015 Flint Water Crisis, despite clean water being a basic human right and a key component of health. While many of us think access to clean drinking water is something only developing nations struggle with, in this article I aim to illuminate the implications of both race and class as they pertain to government action in ensuring access to clean water. Through the lens of environmental justice, we can see how the same processes of power and development have led to the marginalization of these groups, lending to disparities in health, safety, and respect for human rights.

     The root of environmental justice lies in the blatant disregard of vulnerable populations’ well-being by the government. In 2015 when the Flint Lead Water Crisis broke out, it was revealed to be a massive blunder of government officials failing to manage resources effectively.  With a population of 54% black and 41.9% impoverished persons is it really so strange that city and state officials had assured the citizens of Flint that their drinking water was clean and safe to drink… despite the fact the faucets began spewing out brown muck and health officials had confirmed an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease? Not at all. Flint is inarguably a vulnerable population on account of its demographic breakdown by both race and class. The chronology of this epidemic shows that several organizations had the chance to intervene, but none did. The USEPA, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the State of Michigan and the local officials are all accountable to varying degrees. This strange trickle down effect of guilt, blame and accountability only amplifies the notion that this was in fact a form of intended negligence demonstrated by those in power.  Moreover, the consequences of such negligence have far reaching implications that are still observable. While the “lead-to-prison pipeline” is already well understood, in a 30-year longitudinal study about childhood lead exposure it was found that even into adulthood children who had elevated blood lead levels had significantly higher levels of general psychopathology and neuroticism.

     The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation brings to light a similar story.  On a reservation in North Dakota, an indigienous tribe is fighting against the federal government’s oil pipeline that could threaten the quality of their drinking water. The pipeline was planned to be closer to the state capital, Bismark, but upon the realization that it may be a threat to their drinking water, it was decided to move it just half a mile away from the reservation. To make matters worse, the Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide Permit No. 12 (NWP12) bypassed the wills of the indigenous tribe and circumvented environmental inspections so that this pipeline could be built on the Sioux people’s land. Within itself this action expresses a blatant disregard for the lives and health of those most affected by this pipeline. Questions of both class and race are raised yet again in this situation, as Standing Rock is all indigenous persons with a poverty rate of 40%, compared to Bismark which is 95% white. This story is all too familiar—minority populations, a lack of financial resources, lack of autonomy and government exploitation.  We are consistently seeing this same process by which the government oppresses and then takes advantage of vulnerable communities through quiet maneuvers around legal barriers. This pattern of abuse, especially against indigenous persons, has persisted for centuries and begs the question, does our government value all lives and rights equally? Socioeconomic status alone, across state borders and racial identities, has proven itself as a powerful determinant for risk of exploitation.  These same threads that tie together the stories of the Sioux people and the citizens of Flint substantiate a greater narrative: Health is a privilege reserved for the rich and powerful.

     It is imperative that we begin to understand health disparities through the lens of environmental justice if we hope to alleviate them. Health has become political, and it’s not enough to sit by idly while these vulnerable communities are being exploited by the very people who are supposed to be protecting them. Consequently, I believe there’s a need for a call to action: EO 12898 must be brought back to the center of political discourse, and we must demand the government be held accountable for the protection of its citizens.