The pandemic has exposed America’s clean water crisis

The pandemic has exposed America’s clean water crisis

Millions live without access to clean water in the US — and the coronavirus has left them in further turmoil.

Day after day, Deanna Miller Berry watches the requests pile up in her inbox.

“Please help me,” a resident of Denmark, South Carolina, pleads. “I’m stuck in my house and don’t want to drink the water.”

“Just water,” another resident writes in.

A third request for water comes in from a family of two who live in an apartment in the center of town on a block flanked by Baptist churches and not too far from the Piggly Wiggly. Miller Berry logs the responses to the dozen questions in an Excel sheet for the Denmark Citizens for Clean Water: Yes, someone in the home is directly impacted by Covid-19. Yes, someone has a disability. Yes, someone is elderly. No, neither one has access to their own transport.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Miller Berry’s document keeps growing longer. As the founder of Denmark Citizens for Clean Water, she helps supply the community with clean water instead of the brown, smelly liquid that has been sloshing out of the taps in a number of homes for more than a decade. She delivers tanks and pays the monthly water costs — sometimes hundreds of dollars — for residents in the majority-black community.

The town’s battle with drinking water — laced with HaloSan, a pesticide meant to kill bacteria — long precedes the pandemic, though. Residents told a local outlet 10 years ago, “The smell is terrible.” More recently, former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer mentioned the residents’ concerns over their water system on the campaign trail.

Virginia Tech civil engineering professor Marc Edwards, who exposed the unsafe lead levels in the water in Flint, Michigan, and helped bring national attention to the issue, has also gone down to Denmark to test the town’s well at the request of the community. In 2017, he collected dozens of samples from homes, Miller Berry says, but when Edwards asked the town’s mayor if he could test a well for possible bacterial contamination after spotting a leaky sewage pipe, the mayor refused.

As for Flint, Mayor Sheldon Neely is still busy dealing with the community’s access to clean drinking water six years after large amounts of lead were detected. And now there is the pandemic. When Vox spoke with Neely a few weeks ago, he had declared a state of emergency before the president of the United States had, and had ordered water that was shut off by the previous administration reconnected.

Meanwhile, miles away in Detroit, lawyers and activists are also fighting to turn water back on for the city’s most vulnerable populations, after officials promised it would do so amid coronavirus concerns — yet hundreds still remain without access.

Having chemical- and lead-free water — or water at all — in the pandemic is vital: Hand-washing with soap is one of the most effective ways to fight off the virus. But millions of Americans across the country lack clean water — from small, rural towns in Kentucky to New Jersey’s densely populated city of Newark. And while clean water access isn’t only an issue for majority-black communities like Flint, Denmark, or Detroit, one study did find race to be the strongest correlative to lack of clean water. It is a crisis that is further exacerbated by the coronavirus, compounding years-long injustices in water-poor communities.

“It’s just a Catch-22,” Edwards tells Vox. “If [these communities] don’t engage in rigorous hygiene, they’re endangering themselves to coronavirus, and if they do, they’re fearful of the water.”

Communities without access to clean water are in a “constant state of emergency”

Contaminated water isn’t confined to a few communities or states, experts say. In any given year from 1982 to 2015, nearly 45 million Americans were accessing water that violated health standards, according to a 2018 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While that may be true, the lack of water access impacts low-income communities like Denmark, Flint, and Martin County, Kentucky, more aggressively.

“That is a reality for our poorest Americans,” Edwards said, which “translates into a lot of problems. … Cities that have a lot of water shutoffs. Others are living in fear of bathing and showering because of distrust in their water. And so even the basic functional water and quantity for hygiene isn’t being delivered.”

Darlene McClendon at her home in Flint, Michigan, in 2016. Many residents have been buying bottled water because the city’s water supply has been contaminated with lead. Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In Martin County, Kentucky, BarbiAnn Maynard, who has seen brown, milky water in her shower and kitchen for nearly two decades — when she does have water — waves off the collective panic around coronavirus.

“This is not anything unusual for us,” Maynard, a member of the Martin County Water Warriors, tells Vox. “I used hand sanitizer rather than our water” before coronavirus. She has been afraid to wash her hands for a long time, and the pandemic has changed almost nothing, she says. When she takes a shower, she uses antibacterial hand-wash.

The Martin County Water District operates in a “constant state of emergency,” the state’s Public Service Commission noted. A 2019 report from the Appalachian Citizens Law Center noted nearly half of the county’s residents couldn’t afford to buy water regularly. (The water department did not return Vox’s request for comment.)

Now in the pandemic, many of the grocery stores in the county are out of water, Maynard says. Donors paying into a fund for residents to buy water are still making contributions, but the only grocery store allowing residents to buy water at market value limits it to two gallons per person per visit. It takes an average of four gallons to get through the day, Maynard says. Before the pandemic, residents could make a 45-minute drive to a spring in West Virginia, but now they’re not allowed to cross state lines.

To work around the grocery stores’ rules, Maynard went directly to the bottle distribution center in Elkhorn City, Kentucky, more than an hour drive from her home, to buy cases in bulk.

But even before the coronavirus, Martin County needed more bottled and distilled water than other places in the US. “It’s just as bad inhaling it in the shower, so you have to get right back out,” Maynard says.

The threat of dirty, lead-infused, or chemical-laced water — and, in some cases, no water at all — is not only a rural concern. Last year, more than 23,000 accounts had their water shut off in the city of Detroit, and 37 percent still hadn’t had service restored as of mid-January. With the virus spreading, the city promised to restore water to residents, but as of March 31 had only done so for 1,050 of the 10,000 people who called with a water service problem (8,000 of those callers did not qualify for the Coronavirus Water Restart Plan, according to a city report).

Kristi Pullen Fedinick, the director of science and data at the environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, attributes the overlooked water crises across the country to governmental “policies that have led to specific communities being disenfranchised and marginalized.”

These dozens of communities across the United States, she says, have been facing not only water crises but many other issues because they have been systematically ignored for decades by those in charge. She ticks off the problems communities tend to face when they lack water: poor air quality, poor access to health care, and higher-than-average death rates. “The pandemic really exacerbated those issues they have been facing for a very, very, very long time.”

In Newark, New Jersey, for example, the state’s largest city, lead-contaminated water has impacted the health of its residents for years, with city officials denying there was a problem. In 2018, they abruptly changed course, however, and started handing out water filters to some residents after a new study confirmed that lead was indeed in the water at an alarmingly high rate, the New York Times reported. In August, the Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to the mayor recommending the city advise residents “to use bottled water for drinking and cooking, until we can be assured of the reliable efficacy of filtration devices.” At the same time, the Newark Water Coalition provided hundreds of gallons of water and filters at its distribution sites pre-pandemic, to fill in the void of just how much water residents need.

But with the stay-at-home mandates in a hot spot like New Jersey, the coalition’s co-founder Sabre Bee says getting water out to those in need isn’t always possible when keeping social distancing in mind.

“We were doing [distribution] at church, but of course, we can’t gather in groups of five or more,” Bee says. “And so we haven’t been able to move distributions.” Instead, she and other advocates for clean water deliver water to older and ill people, those who cannot get around in the middle of a pandemic.

People are telling Bee they’re boiling water when they can’t get clean water, which she knows works with bacteria. But with lead, she says, that only concentrates the amount in the water.

“I know this is serious,” Bee says about the pandemic, “and I have to help my immune system during this time, but I’m drinking water that’s poisoned. So now I’m just a ball of nerves and feeling helpless and hopeless.”

Local water advocacy groups are stepping in to bring water to their communities

In 2018, the NRDC found that more than 30 million Americans, nearly 10 percent of the country’s population, drank from sources that violated the EPA’s federal regulations. The issue, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines on its website, is that even though the EPA puts out regulations — like setting legal limits on contaminants in drinking water and regularly updating water standards — they are just regulations. There is no national standard that mandates states implement the EPA’s guidelines. This leaves a gap in local and state governments carrying out these guidelines, because in many cases, they may not have the financial resources to improve their drinking water.

As Edwards says, all the blame cannot be placed on small, local governments: “Many of our post-industrial cities and towns in America are losing population, and those who are left behind cannot afford to upgrade their infrastructure and maintain it to meet existing federal laws and standards. And so [those in charge] end up cutting corners because they have no choice.”

This leaves those communities at risk to take it upon themselves to find — and many times buy — their own clean drinking water.

In Denmark, Miller Berry has taken on the burden of helping those in her community. “We’ve gotten zero help from the state of South Carolina. We’ve gotten zero help from our county, and we’ve gotten zero help from our city officials. We are being ignored by all three,” Miller Berry says. (Multiple attempts by Vox to contact the mayor’s office went unanswered.)

She has paid more than 20 residents’ water bills over the past few months, according to her calculations, and word is spreading. These days, she gets more than 60 calls a day.

“I’ve been reaching out to the National Guard today to see if they could provide a water buffalo [tank]. But a [tank] cannot be provided to us until our county emergency management manager declares Denmark an emergency,” Miller Berry says.

This is a stark contrast to local governments that have stepped up in the pandemic. In Newark, construction workers have replaced more than half of the nearly 19,000 lead-laden pipes since 2019, according to Kareem Adeem, the city’s director of water and sewage. Filters that should last the better part of a year were passed out before the coronavirus outbreak to the residents who still have lead-contaminated water in their pipes, he said.

In Kentucky, Maynard can’t even finish her sentence when she talks about how people are supporting her community. “Getting donations right now is, oh, my gosh,” she says over the phone with relief. A state representative sent 60 gallons of distilled water for medical needs, while another Democratic state Senate candidate, Scott Sykes, sent 200 cases of water to residents, she said.

Even though it’s a massive public health threat, coronavirus feels like a blip to communities struggling with water, Edwards says. “There [are] many dimensions to this problem and [coronavirus] is a minor dimension, but it’s symptomatic of a frustrating situation that you can’t even rely on to get water from your tap.”

By Khushbu Shah – April 17th 2020 – Vox