In my environmental science class during my freshman year at Duke, I learned about the harm that pollution from hog farms was causing in eastern North Carolina, especially in low-income communities and communities of color that were situated closest to the farms. It appalled me that these farms could get away with polluting their neighbors’ air and water, negatively impacting people’s health and day-to-day lives. I could feel, with urgency, the stakes of protecting the environment.
That was the moment when it became clear to me that protecting the environment wasn’t just about protecting pretty landscapes or endearing animals. I discovered a whole new realm of the environmental movement that resonated with me more than any other issue: environmental justice.
When I arrived at LCV for my summer internship, I was excited to have the opportunity to work on environmental justice in the context of the Trump administration’s attacks on clean water. Every community across the country struggles with water pollution issues, some even as awful as the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan. However, the struggles of these communities have received very little attention.
Both through active rollbacks and attacks by inaction, the Trump administration has been waging an all-out war on our clean water, jeopardizing the health of millions. Here is a list of some of the most dangerous of Trump’s recent attacks on our precious waterways:
The Trump administration is hellbent on repealing the Clean Water Rule, which would clarify which small streams and wetlands should be protected under the Clean Water Act. If Trump succeeds in repealing the Clean Water Rule, the drinking water of 117 million people, or about 1 in 3 people in the United States, would be at risk of contamination. Low-income communities and communities of color will suffer disproportionately from this rollback. Not content with that attack alone, Trump will propose a new rule this August that could go even further to decimate drinking water protections and the wetlands that protect our communities from flooding and filter groundwater.
Up to 110 million people in the United States could be drinking PFAS-contaminated water, a chemical that has been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, and many other health problems. At least 400 military installations and surrounding communities nationwide have or are suspected to have PFAS contamination, but PFAS contamination is not confined to military sites alone. In May, the Trump administration tried to prevent the release of a report that found that the EPA’s limit for PFAS chemicals in our drinking water is dangerously high. The administration reportedly feared a “public relations nightmare”– they were more worried about bad press for the chemical industry than the health of our families.
The Trump administration is rolling back an Obama-era rule that restricted the amount of arsenic, mercury, lead, and other seriously dangerous pollutants that coal plants can release into our waterways. This rollback could put millions of people at risk for cancer and lasting brain damage, and since these plants are often located near communities of color and low-income communities, the impacts on these communities could be even greater.
Trump is pushing the EPA to back off attempts to use their Clean Water Act authority to stop the dangerous and highly destructive Pebble Mine from being developed in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Building the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay would cause irreparable damage to Bristol Bay’s salmon runs, destroying Alaskan Native communities’ cultural traditions and hurting the many economies that depend on the salmon. Not only does Trump want to allow the Pebble Mine to move forward, he wants to strip the EPA of its very authority to block these large projects that would have a detrimental and irreversible impact on water quality and the environment.
The Trump administration promised a “war on lead,” but it has failed to develop any updates to the safeguards against lead in our water. In addition, the Trump administration has done nothing to increase enforcement of current rules, which contributed to the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, back in 2014. However, Flint is not alone: lead pipes carry water to between 15 million and 22 million people, and, in particular, African-American and low-income families are more likely to have lead pipes in their homes. No level of lead is safe in our water and we must remove all lead pipes across the country, but the Trump administration is dragging its feet on requiring states and utilities to take this absolutely critical step.
The common thread between these attacks is that the Trump administration has demonstrated a dangerous indifference to the state of our drinking water and the health of our communities.
Clean drinking water is a basic human right. For many people, such as the people of the Alaskan Native Tribes in Bristol Bay, water is a huge part of their culture and way of life. All people deserve to have access to water that won’t make them sick or cause irreversible damage to their children’s health. At the very least, our communities should be made aware if their water is unsafe.