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The link between water quality and social inequality

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What's happening in Jackson, Miss., is the latest example of a failing water system, but it's not the only one. Our next guest says this is more common than you might think, especially for communities of color. She says citizens across the country are struggling to get consistent access to contaminant free water. Back in 2019, Kristi Pullen Fedinick co-wrote a report on this called "Watered Down Justice." In it, she detailed the relationship between social characteristics like race and income with drinking water violations. And what she found was that drinking water protections under the Safe Drinking Water Act had not been equally implemented across the country. Kristi Pullen Fedinick is with us now to tell us more. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

KRISTI PULLEN FEDINICK: Thank you for having me, Michel. Wonderful to be here.

MARTIN: So in your 2019 report, you talked about a number of trends that showed a relationship between the quality of drinking water and social inequality. Obviously, I wanted to ask you to tell us more about the report. But the first thing I wondered is, what made you think about assessing the relationship between those two questions?

PULLEN FEDINICK: Yeah, that's a really wonderful question. When Flint, Mich., the catastrophe and injustice that happened there came into the national understanding - so I really want to flag the national understanding relative to what the people of Flint knew was already happening to them, one of the first questions I had was, Are there other Flints out there?

MARTIN: So talk to me about - so what did you find? Give me the top lines. What did you find?

PULLEN FEDINICK: Yeah. So we found that communities of color - so we looked at this at the county level, right? So we looked at the drinking water violations, not just for lead, but for all violations to the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is the federal law that's meant to protect our drinking water and ensure the quality of our drinking water across the country. So I looked at each county, the United States, with a little over 3,000 counties, and found that counties that had higher proportions of their population - so, you know, a greater percentage of their population essentially - that were people of color, that were low income or people that lacked access to transportation were more likely to have violations to the Safe Drinking Water Act than communities that didn't have those characteristics.

MARTIN: So you mentioned Flint, Mich. As you said, that story first became a national story in 2014. We know that the common contaminant was lead.

PULLEN FEDINICK: Yes.

MARTIN: Is that the case nationally in your report?

PULLEN FEDINICK: Yeah. So when we look at all violations, lead is certainly a big issue. And so we did some analysis. I even have some updated analysis that looked at, you know, where lead contamination might be across the country. But it's not the most common drinking water contaminant, actually. So what we're seeing happening in Jackson and certainly across the country in other places - microbial contamination, so getting bacteria into the water that you don't want to consume. That's when you get those - you have to boil your water in order to try to kill those pathogens, those disease-causing organisms that can be in the water. You know, those - that's the most common violation that you see across the country.

MARTIN: And is that due - why is that? Is that mainly due to aging infrastructure that hasn't been updated? Like, why is this happening?

PULLEN FEDINICK: Yeah, that's exactly right. So it's aging infrastructure. It can also be that a pipe breaks somewhere in the system, for example. You know, maybe it's a cold day, but, you know - that breaks the pipe. But it really is the leaking, aging, deteriorating pipes that exist all across our country that lead to this infiltration of bacteria into the water.

MARTIN: The question I think many people would have is, like, is this intentional conduct? I mean, it's just hard to envision a situation where people would intentionally sicken their fellow citizens. Or is it a question of neglect? Or is it a question of people just didn't think about it?

PULLEN FEDINICK: Yeah, it's...

MARTIN: I mean, it just seems hard to imagine that something so fundamental to life, like water, would receive so little attention.

PULLEN FEDINICK: Yes.

MARTIN: So I don't know if you consider that beyond the scope of your reporting - if I may ask, what do you think?

PULLEN FEDINICK: You know, I think there are a number of reasons why drinking water systems fail to provide safe water. One could be neglect, and that was what happened in Flint. And so we see most of the violations to the Safe Drinking Water Act in small systems, so drinking water systems that serve less than 500 people or less than, say, 3,000 people. And so oftentimes with these very small systems, they don't have the technical or managerial or even financial resources that they need in order to upkeep that system. So that can also be a part of it.

I also think, though, that, again, when we see these larger social patterns, then, you know, there also are structural barriers to certain communities getting access to the resources they need. And so the communities that we identify in "Watered Down Justice" are not only the communities that, you know, have issues with drinking water, but may also have issues with other infrastructure and education and criminal justice. And so that really gets down into structural racism, structural inequities that lead to there being communities of haves and have-nots in this country.

MARTIN: So do you have prescriptions for how to make water infrastructure more resilient? Tell us how to think about this.

PULLEN FEDINICK: Yes. I mean, there are a number of, again, levels in which we need to be thinking about how we can make our drinking water systems not only more resilient to climate change, but just functioning in the way that they need to be functioning for our population. You know, one is to make actual investments in improving drinking water infrastructure across the country. And you know, $30 billion in the bipartisan infrastructure bill is a wonderful start. It is no way adequate to solving the drinking water issues around the country. And I think given that funding, we need to be prioritizing the places around the country that have the biggest problems and making sure that they are getting the resources they need, the technical training. Training people within communities to be able to do this kind of work, I think, would be really critical. You know, from an individual consumer perspective, know what's in your water.

You know, you should be getting every year a consumer confidence report. It's really critical for you to keep, you know, an eye on what's in your water. You know, it's something that I think ultimately having a more educated, knowledgeable populace can also help us to find and identify leaders that help us to move forward in the directions that we want to be able to move forward in.

MARTIN: And that is Kristi Pullen Fedinick, She's the executive director of the Center for Earth Energy and Democracy. Before that, as we mentioned, she was the chief science officer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the NRDC. Kristi Pullen Fedinick, thanks so much for talking with us.

PULLEN FEDINICK: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.