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Fighting for Environmental Justice Means Fighting to Save the CWA

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Fighting for Environmental Justice Means Fighting to Save the CWA
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On October 28, 2021, Governor Wolf issued an Executive Order for Environmental Justice designed to support low-income communities and communities of color that are adversely impacted by environmental issues. The Order defines “environmental justice” as “[t]he fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the Commonwealth’s development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”1 But, as it relates to our drinking water, what exactly does “environmental justice” mean? 

A compelling answer to this question can be found in a 2019 report by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. and its Thurgood Marshall Institute. The report, titled “WATER/COLOR – A Study of Race and the Water Affordability Crisis in America’s Cities,” explains: “The price of water has greatly increased in recent decades, and scores of communities across the nation that cannot afford to pay drastically higher rates have been plagued by service shutoffs and lien sales, leading to home foreclosures and evictions. These practices have been shown to disproportionately impact people of color.”2 As the report makes clear, the environmental injustice resulting from unaffordable water rates is devastating: “Without access to running water, families are unable to cook, bathe, clean, or flush their toilets. Additionally, families may forego medical expenses or food in order to pay their water bills.”3 People can lose their homes, lose custody of their children, and even lose their freedom, as the “inability to pay for water and sanitation services can lead to criminal charges or other legal action.”4 If “environmental justice” means anything, it surely must mean that human beings should not endure this kind of suffering merely because they cannot afford to pay their water bills.

Which begs the question: what does it mean to have affordable water? The NAACP’s report notes that a “two percent median household income measure first emerged in 1997 guidance from the EPA”—meaning that “affordable” water should not, according to the EPA, exceed two percent of household income.5 However, as discussed in the report, the EPA’s percentage threshold “may not capture the full extent to which water is unaffordable.”6 Thus, for a community of color like the City of Chester, keeping the cost of water below the two-percent threshold is absolutely critical for its low-income residents. For many of Chester’s residents, it will be the difference between, on one hand, keeping their homes, their health, their children, their freedom, their dignity—and on the other, losing everything. Keeping the cost of water below the two-percent threshold is environmental justice.

That is why the fight to save the CWA is so important, and why organizations that care about environmental justice support the CWA’s preservation. Just last week, the national, non-profit advocacy group, Food & Water Watch, filed an amicus brief in support of the CWA’s appeal to the state Supreme Court to stop Aqua Pennsylvania’s attempt to take over the authority’s water system.7 “In its brief, Food & Water Watch points out that the most immediate effect of the takeover is likely to be a dramatic increase in water rates — the most predictable consequence of corporate water privatization in Pennsylvania and across the country. The water bill burden in Chester would go from about 1.2 percent of median household income to 3.3 percent of median household income, a level generally deemed unaffordable by the Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations.8 

Such rate hikes by for-profit water companies are nothing new. The NAACP, echoing the findings of Food & Water Watch, explains that “privately-owned water utilities charge customers, on average, 59 percent more for water service” and “[o]f particular concern, the privatization of water services can have a particular and disproportionate impact on communities of color, including higher rates and increased risk of service interruptions.”

Our elected officials must do more than pay lip service to “environmental justice.” They must acknowledge the real hardships that low-income communities and communities of color face in affording their water, and the real harm that will befall these communities if the CWA is sold to a for-profit corporation.

Endnotes:

[1] Executive Order 2021-07 (Oct. 28, 2021) (emphasis added).

[2] See Report at pg. 1, available athttps://www.naacpldf.org/wp-content/uploads/Water_Report_FULL_5_31_19_FINAL_OPT.pdf.

[3] Id. at pg. 28.

[4] Id. at pgs. 28-29.

[5] Id. at pg. 26.

[6] Id. at pg. 4.

[7] See “National Organization Backs Appeal of Chester Water Authority ‘Hostile Takeover’,” available at https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/2021/11/02/national-organization-backs-appeal-of-chester-water-authority-hostile-takeover/.

[8] Id. (emphasis added). 

[9] See Report at pg. 22, available athttps://www.naacpldf.org/wp-content/uploads/Water_Report_FULL_5_31_19_FINAL_OPT.pdf.

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