Access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water is not just a concern of developing countries but of communities in our own backyard. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North and South Dakota, for instance, relies on Lake Oahe, a 231-mile reservoir along the Missouri River, as its primary water source. In July 2016, the US Army Corps of Engineers approved the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a 1,172-mile duct that will carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois when completed, which will run underneath the Missouri River less than a mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, including through the tribe’s sacred, ancestral lands. Given concerns about having oil-related infrastructure near major water sources, especially after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 (the largest oil spill in US waters), members of the tribe have been vigorously defending their rights to safe, clean water. Their struggle has caught the attention of major advocacy organizations around the world and indigenous tribes in other nations. After a brief reprieve in December 2016 when the Obama administration blocked further construction of the DAPL, the Trump administration now supports continued construction of the pipeline.
Safety concerns related to oil pipelines are well documented. The Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s 20-year incident trends reveal that from 1997 to 2016 an estimated 5,679 significant incidents occurred involving pipelines with a total cost of more than $7.8 billion in current-year dollars. The risk of even a minor oil spill in vulnerable areas along a pipeline’s path could be catastrophic for the communities affected, especially those located along waterways. Many Indigenous tribes are reliant on water sources to support their livelihood. For example, tribes that rely on hunting and fishing for subsistence depend on the cleanliness not just of their local water supply but of the entirety of the ecosystem feeding the water source, which could be affected hundreds of miles or several states away. Concerns about how both subterranean and above-ground parts of the pipeline may affect the water system are not without merit, yet the concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux have been discounted by supporters of the pipeline.
Water insecurity is a global issue that encumbers marginalized and vulnerable communities around the world. When marginalized racial and ethnic minority communities are disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards (such as oil pipelines) compared to more privileged groups, this is known as environmental racism, and it’s a type of institutional racism. In Flint, Michigan, for instance, massive lead contamination resulted from a decision by local officials to cut costs by switching the municipal water source without treating the water to ensure it didn’t corrode lead-lined pipes. Flint is a majority African American community and one of the nation’s poorest cities. Public health experts posit that about 99,000 Flint residents were exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water, a fact that is potentially more concerning among the youngest children, in whom high lead levels can be neurotoxic and lead to permanent developmental disability.
Another example of environmental racism is the planned storage facility for the country’s high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain on land that abuts the homes of the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute tribes of Nevada, who have ancestral ties to the mountains. The tribes, and other Nevada residents, were concerned about living in such close proximity to toxic hazards. With President Donald Trump’s most recent budget proposal, he hopes to revive plans for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
Existing environmental protections also face potential threats under the new political regime. On February 28, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order aimed at rolling back former President Barack Obama’s signature Clean Water Rule, also known as the “Waters of the United States” rule. The Clean Water Rule clarified which bodies of water are protected under the Clean Water Act, giving the government more defined authority to limit pollution in smaller bodies of water. The executive order says the Trump administration will publish a proposed rule rescinding or revising Obama’s Clean Water Rule.
Furthermore, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, and the Trump administration have been supportive of slashing the EPA budget in favor of more defense spending. The EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, which enforces civil rights laws that prohibit EPA fund recipients from discriminating against members of the public and advises EPA program offices on civil rights compliance and equal employment opportunity, will most certainly be caught in the crosshairs of dramatic budget reductions. By the same token, the EPA’s independent advocacy arm, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which aims to meaningfully address environmental public health concerns in at-risk communities, may be adversely affected. One fear is that rolling back clean water regulation will affect not just the water sources of tribes such as the Standing Rock Sioux but water sources throughout the country, with low-income communities near major water sources being most at risk. Although the EPA has codified environmental justice values into their mission in accordance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we may witness dramatically more instances of environmental racism in the United States with the gutting of the EPA’s budget and relaxation of water safety regulation.
Environmental Equity And Health
In the current era of climate changes and a shared water supply, we must be even more cognizant of water as a precious resource. Water is essential to life and health. Water and health are intertwined — profoundly linked and mutually inclusive. One without the other is unfathomable and impossible. Water sources should be defended vigorously against unjust local and global threats as a matter of environmental health policy. With regard to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, time is of the essence. The tribe and local and national advocacy partners must collaborate with other organizations—beyond the activism route—to leverage additional community organizing tactics to protect their water. The “water protectors” campaign must not stop at the boundaries of one reservation and must go beyond the scope of tribal, state, and federal governments. As a means of redress, the tribe and its supporters could further challenge the construction of the pipeline in court using precedent in either the environmental justice or civil rights arena. From a policy perspective, this situation highlights the need for more stringent public health and environmental justice transparency and accountability within infrastructure proposals.
What I fear is that with weakened environmental protection laws, we as a nation will see more health concerns manifest over time. Whether it is rising rates of cancer-causing toxic poisonings from water contamination or higher incidents of respiratory illnesses from air pollution (to name a few), all Americans will be affected by deregulation — whether personally or as a byproduct of increased health care costs for the treatment of these conditions. The United States has an opportunity to support its indigenous communities and their health by supporting environmental equity.