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Water and sewer services in marginalized and underserved communities.

Dear Editor:

I find the article titled "Use of Community-Owned and -Managed Research to Assess the Vulnerability of Water and Sewer Services in Marginalized and Underserved Environmental Justice Communities" (JEH, 74 [1], July/August 2011) interesting in that it uses race as a scientific adjunct to a common rural or semi-urbanized American situation.

As unfortunate as it is to not have municipal services, it is a fact of life that such services cannot be extended to all areas of a given community, even if they are on the outskirts of a municipality that has such services. The reason, as many of us know, is the cost of such services. Regardless of color, such areas exist in all states and in many communities.

To use statements such as "descendants of slaves" should not be a part of a scientific study that is used to focus on "racism." The fact that such services are unaffordable to a group of people does not make it racist, and any and all such statements appear to be a matter of personal subjectivity of the researcher(s).

I recently moved into a rural area, not far from a municipality that has all of the typical city services, yet until recently we did not have municipal water (or sewer/gas, cable, etc.), and the groundwater is unbearable. Even my Labrador refused to drink it. Yet people lived in these areas for decades, hauling in drinking water, as they do in much of this area.

Recent municipal water became a matter of residents requesting such services from the municipality servicing the area. It took residents petitioning the local governmental unit. Engineering studies were then performed along with a cost analysis. Then residents, once armed with all the necessary information, voted on the project. A majority (51%) was needed to vote in the project. Most of you reading this letter know the procedure.

When I hear statements like "Environmental Justice," I think of more entitlements without any local citizen financial input. Our particular water extension project cost each resident over $7,000, which could be spread over a number of years for payoff.

The fact the some people reside in areas that may have landfills, heavily trafficked areas, etc., as stated in the article, can once again fit in most any community of people of all color. It often means cheaper land and lower taxes.

This is not a matter of "denial" of such services, but rather a matter of the community either not being able to afford them, or not petitioning for such services. Instead of extending these services, why does the community not focus on fixing what they already have? We cannot extend services without some compensation. Someone has to pay for it. But to state it is "racism" is unfounded and a ploy to get the government to service communities without any compensation.

It is unfortunate that everyone cannot have all the modern services that are available to certain areas of a community, but it is also a matter of "doing with what you have," or working to improve it through however you can afford. Joplin, Missouri, residents are a prime recent example of community support, where a devastating tornado recently imploded a once viable community. No one was crying for the federal government to come in and save them; they are doing it themselves through donations, community support, and little government assistance.

We all cannot have everything for doing nothing. It takes the hard work of citizens, and a matter of self-reliance to grow a community and keep it safe.

Chuck Lichon, RS, MPH

Linwood, MI

The Authors Respond

Institutional Racism: A Teachable Moment

Dear Editor:

We thank the letter writer, Chuck Lichon, RS, MPH, for raising his questions and appreciate the opportunity to give more background on our recent feature article, "Use of Community-Owned and--Managed Research to Assess the Vulnerability of Water and Sewer Services in Marginalized and Underserved Environmental Justice Communities." In our response, our primary focus is on broader systems of institutional racism that lead to discrimination and environmental injustice. We hope that our response will provide the readership of JEH a teachable moment on the forms of institutional racism and discrimination that still produce barriers to minimum quality of life standards for low-income, minority, and tribal populations.

It is unfortunate that in 2011, with President Barack Obama serving as the first elected African-American leader of the "free world," many continue to profess the notion that race, class, income, and politics have nothing to do with inequities in access to basic amenities (e.g., clean air, safe drinking water, and toxic-free soil), and public health protections. In addition, we are very aware that despite empirical evidence, some of our more educated colleagues and powerful government officials, scientists, educators, and religious leaders continue to infuse their public opinions with revisionist denials of racism and economic discrimination.

Although some believe it is not scientific to frankly acknowledge the past, we contend that it is a prerequisite for science. Our JEH article is grounded in the socioeconomic contexts of three communities of color in the previously small textile mill town of Mebane, North Carolina. The city of Mebane straddles both Alamance County and Orange County and has a current population of less than 10,000. The three target communities are 85% to 95% African-American with a mixture of Native American heritage that predates the end of slavery in 1865. The generations of families of color, churches--with cornerstones struck as early as 1868--and segregated cemeteries are all legacies of Jim Crow; yet some would believe these taxpaying citizens chose to be segregated and preferred drinking contaminated water while their fellow citizens received the benefits of municipal drinking water, sewer services, and paved streets. On the contrary, after years working side by side with people of all colors concerned about the survival of these communities, we believe our article provides a more rational explanation.

Two of the co-authors of this paper, Omega Wilson and Marilyn Snipes, were born and raised in Mebane. They are both descendants of former slaves and Native Americans and co-founders of the West End Revitalization Association (WERA). WERA was incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit in 1995, and it serves as Mebane's first U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) "community-based environmental protection model" organization. It has led efforts in African-American communities to stop racial discrimination and adverse effects associated with leaking underground storage tanks, unpaved streets, contaminated drinking water, failed backyard septic systems, and landfills (Wilson, Bumpass, Wilson, & Snipes, 2008).

The communities WERA represents emerged out the "reconstruction period" after the Civil War, when those freed slaves and displaced Native Americans were forced to settle in South African-type "hostels" on the least desirable land. WERA communities began as buffers between whites and the town dump, discarded mill and factory waste, sewage pits, aboveground piles of dead farm animals, and an eight-acre pit used to mine soil for brick making. This pattern continued from the beginning, past 1920 when Mebane placed the public landfill and sewage treatment plant in one of these communities, through the era of legalized discrimination.

In February 1999, WERA filed administrative complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898 of 1994 at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), when local, state, and federal government agencies had planned construction of the Highway 119 bypass/interstate for 16 years without public input. The four-lane highway, in an eight-lane corridor, would have destroyed homes and churches in two of the historic communities that had been denied access to basic municipal drinking water and sewer services (Wilson, Bumpass, Wilson, & Snipes, 2008). At the time, officials from DOJ described WERA communities as suffering from "patterns of historic discrimination" that denied access to "basic amenities." WERA's DOJ complaints were renewed in February 2010 and are currently under "jurisdictional review" at DOJ and U.S. EPA's Office of Civil Rights in Washington, DC.

The African-Americans in WERA communities have been requesting access to services for years. One of the most glaring examples of blatant racial discrimination in this case happened after WERA went above the city for help. In 2000, the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Department of Environment and Natural Resources set aside over $5 million for the installation of first-time municipal drinking water and sewer collection lines where failed backyard septic systems and outhouses of 134 homes contaminated community ditches and streams with sewage and E. coli. Local government officials repeatedly refused to sign contracts for these state and federal dollars because the money was earmarked to reduce public health disparities in low-income minority communities targeted for destruction by the planned highway corridor--a transportation project planned and supported by city and county governments for three decades. The U.S. Department of Transportation placed the highway project on moratorium after WERA filed the DOJ complaint to prevent it from destroying two of Mebane's minority communities that faced decades of adverse and disproportionate impacts.

From the beginning, WERA has been proactive and patient in efforts to work with the city of Mebane and county governments. WERA's collaborative legal, public health, university, foundation, and government partners have worked to pursue and leverage millions in block grants and local government matching funds to install first-time sewer and safe drinking water services, pave dirt streets, and remove underground storage tanks leaking petroleum as well as toxic benzenes and xylenes (Wilson, Bumpass, Wilson, & Snipes, 2008). Since 2000, Omega, Marilyn, and other members of WERA's board and staff including co-author Natasha Bumpass, who served as WERA's communications manager and field/office research assistant via AmeriCorps VISTA, have worked very closely with Drs. Chris Heaney, John Cooper, and Sacoby Wilson on a series of community-led research studies. These efforts focused on documenting out-of-compliance infrastructure, contaminated drinking well water, contaminated municipal water, and pollution in surface water at levels over 300 times U.S. EPA Clean Water Act guidelines. In 2000, the city of Mebane intentionally installed sewer lines for future taxpayers while ignoring taxpaying residents of WERA communities. In 2003, WERA research documented the actions of the city of Mebane, which provided sewer line connections for new high-income white subdivisions, bypassing dozens of contiguous African-American homes that had been there for decades--some only two to three blocks from Mebane's newly upgraded and federally funded waste water treatment facility.

The financial responsibility of officials for public expenditures is an old argument in cases of environmental injustice and parallels arguments made against antidiscrimination policies: the most expedient and cheapest option for those who control government and industry is to deny services to, and dump on, the same people as always because their land is worth less and they don't have political power. Environmental racism/injustice saves money for some officials by creating burdens on the poor and people of color. That is institutionalized, that is the way the system often works.

Our efforts to raise awareness about these issues have resulted in publications in scientific journals (Heaney, Wilson, & Wilson, 2007; Wilson, Cooper, Heaney, & Wilson, 2008; Wilson, Heaney, Wilson, & Cooper, 2007; Wilson, Wilson, Heaney, & Cooper, 2008) and garnered invitations from national and international organizations. Omega has supported other communities around the country. His knowledge of how to build and manage collaborative partnerships resulted in an invitation to serve as a "community perspective" member of U.S. EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) during 2007-2010, providing input on interagency policy and compliance for air, water, and soil in low-income minority communities and tribal areas throughout the United States. Omega was the lead writer for the "Community Facilitated Strategies" section of NEJAC's Goods Movement Recommendations (involving air, maritime, and rail ports and highway corridors) that adversely affect low-income minority communities and tribal areas (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2010). The Obama-Biden transition team also requested Omega's input on December 16, 2008, to present 10 environmental justice policy priorities to incoming staffers of President-elect Barack Obama's administration, focusing on interagency actions to reduce or eliminate environmental contaminants and health care disparities, improve enforcement of health statutes, and generate new preventive efforts (Wilson, 2008). There is still work to do on expanding the consciousness of ethnically diverse audiences of policymakers, educators, health professionals, and the public.

A broader application of quantitative as well as qualitative methods of scientific research is paramount to improving the quality of life in low-income minority communities and tribal areas and to removing the intellectual and institutional grip of old South cultural and racial legacies of "states' rights" over federal statutes. The co-authors believe that collaborative problem-solving partnerships must move from research, to advocacy, and to activism to translate scientific information and knowledge about institutional racism and health disparities into effective strategies to eliminate environmental and public health hazards. This activism is also needed to dispel the myth that communities should be expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps in the midst of a severe environmental crisis. An encouragement of the people of color in Mebane to be more self-reliant like the citizens of Joplin, Missouri, is misguided, as Missourians affected by the severe storms, tornadoes, and flooding had received $77 million in federal relief as of August 31, 2011 (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2011).

The points raised in the letter to the editor closely parallel public comments expressed by Mebane's city council when WERA filed Title VI and environmental justice complaints nearly 13 years ago. Some may not be aware that starting this summer, President Obama's administration has secured the commitment for 18 branches of the federal government to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to include environmental justice guidelines in their operating procedures (U.S. Department of Justice, 2011). One of WERA's attorneys led the drafting of the MOU. Many still deny, however, that institutional racism is a significant factor in providing access and financial resources necessary to reduce and eliminate legacies of discrimination and segregation.

Our response to the letter to the editor reflects the public and private scientific positions of many in the public health field as the North Carolina Medical Journal, with a circulation of over 30,000, invited Omega Wilson to write a commentary, published in May 2011, entitled "Lack of Basic Amenities: Indicators of Health Disparities in Low-Income Minority Communities and Tribal Areas (Wilson, 2011)." We are encouraged that the JEH has joined the North Carolina Medical Journal, WERA's collaborative partners, and President Obama's administration to help expand the discussions about broad systems that perpetuate environmental injustice and innovative and proactive efforts that can address racial and economics disparities in public health policies.

Omega Wilson, MA

Christopher D. Heaney, MS, PhD

Marilyn Snipes

Natasha Bumpass

John Cooper, PhD

Sacoby Wilson, MS, PhD


Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2011). Federal disaster grants, loans in Missouri top $77 million. Retrieved from http://

Heaney, C.D., Wilson, S.M., & Wilson, O.R. (2007). The West End Revitalization Association's community-owned and managed research model: Development, implementation, and action. [Theory and Methods]. Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education, and Action, 1(4), 339-349.

U.S. Department of Justice. (2011). President Barack Obama's memorandum of understanding on environmental justice and executive order 12898. Retrieved from about/cor/TitleVI/080411_EJ_MOU_EO_12898.pdf

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2010). EPAs response to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Report: Reducing air emissions associated with goods movement: Working toward environmental justice. Retrieved from environmentaljustice/resources/publications/nejac/nejacmtg/ nejac-meeting-trans-072810.pdf

Wilson, O.R. (2008, December 16). Environmental justice: Priorities, recommendations, and policy concerns. Presented at Environmental Justice Forum, Obama-Biden Transition Team, Washington, DC.

Wilson, O.R. (2011). Lack of basic amenities: Indicators of health disparities in low-income minority communities and tribal areas. North Carolina Medical Journal, 72(2), 145-148.

Wilson, O.R., Bumpass, N.G., Wilson, O.M., & Snipes, M.H. (2008). The West End Revitalization Association (WERA)'s right to basic amenities movement: Voice and language of ownership and management of public health solutions in Mebane, North Carolina. Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education, and Action, 2(3), 237-243.

Wilson, S.M., Cooper, J., Heaney, C.D., & Wilson, O.R. (2008). Built environment issues in unserved and underserved African-American neighborhoods in North Carolina. Environmental Justice, 1(2), 63-72.

Wilson, S.M., Heaney, C.D., Wilson, O.R., & Cooper, J. (2007). Use of EPA collaborative problem-solving model to obtain environmental justice in North Carolina. Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education, and Action, 1(4), 327-337.

Wilson, S.M., Wilson, O.R., Heaney, C.D., & Cooper, J. (2008). Community-driven environmental protection: Reducing the P.A.I.N. of the built environment in low-income African-American communities in North Carolina. Social Justice in Context, 3, 41-57.
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Author:Lichon, Chuck
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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