Linda McNeil had barely settled into her newly built home a 20-minute drive from Manhattan when raw sewage first flooded her basement. That was 21 years ago, and the problem has only grown worse. Like others among the predominantly Black population in the city of Mount Vernon, N.Y., Ms. McNeil and her family have spent thousands of dollars on equipment to manually pump out the human waste that routinely backs up from the city’s failing wastewater system and gushes into her toilet, bathtub and sink. For months last winter it happened several times a day.
It’s a vile and all too common assault that inflicts a kind of hygienic hell on more than 1,000 Mount Vernon families each year.
“It takes an emotional toll, mental, physical,” Ms. McNeil said in a July news conference the city held to draw attention to the problem. “The headaches, the smells, the loss of appetite, depression, the lack of sleep. It takes a toll on you.”
Does anyone genuinely believe that what’s happening in Mount Vernon would be happening in one of the richer, predominately white communities also in Westchester County in the shadow of New York City?
While the conditions in Mount Vernon example are extreme, they are by no means unique: the nation’s wastewater infrastructure gets a D-plus from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Across much of the country, wastewater infrastructure needs to be repaired or replaced, or is simply overburdened by demands that exceed what it was built to handle.
Mount Vernon is one of scores of cities around the country with an outdated or overtaxed sewage system — in its particular case: century-old pipes of clay that are crumbling with age, woefully inadequate for the city of 67,000, and commonly swamped by even light rain. Its failing wastewater system is in violation of the Clean Water Act; New York state law, administrative orders from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dating back to 2014; and a federal court order.
The deepest cause of this calamity is decades of underinvestment at the federal level in the nation’s wastewater infrastructure combined with a history of structural racism that has imposed disproportionate environmental hazard and harm on many low-income communities and people of color for far too long.
The good news is that President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda confronts both problems head-on. And Congress has the statutory authority to enact this agenda in full.
The nation’s wastewater management systems are regulated under the 1972 Clean Water Act, which set national standards for handling and treating sewage and other wastewater. The law led to the creation of a revolving fund that provides grants and loans that help localities build and maintain water systems — including the pipes, treatment facilities and other infrastructure to manage wastewater.
For three decades, though, Congress has cut this funding, slashing it to roughly a quarter of its levels in the late 1970s, leaving cities and towns struggling to close the gap.
The wastewater problem has been especially acute in majority Black communities like Mount Vernon. And it shows environmental injustice isn’t limited to Southern areas like Houston and Baton Rouge, La., where industrial waste sites and refineries are concentrated in majority Black neighborhoods. In Oakland, Calif., giant container shipping facilities, and the air pollution they generate, are adjacent to Black and Hispanic communities. And infamously in Flint, Mich., aging lead pipes have contaminated drinking water supplies in the predominantly Black city for years.
Environmental injustice unfortunately has many manifestations, all of them baked into the nation’s social and economic order. It’s an injustice that shows up as redlined urban neighborhoods that get hotter in summer because they lack green spaces. We can see it in rural communities hard hit by toxic landfill sites and raw sewage or coal ash impoundments. We’re beginning to see it in the disproportionate price people of color will pay for climate change.
The latest United Nations report on the climate crisis makes clear the kinds of storms and the flooding we are experiencing now, and the worsening stress water systems can expect, which makes reform evermore urgent. President Biden’s agenda to Build Back Better would increase desperately needed federal funds to help cities cope with a widening wastewater crisis impacting rural and urban areas alike, from Centreville, Ill. to Lowndes County, Ala.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill that recently passed the Senate would make a down payment, dedicating roughly $12.7 billion to address the issue. And a separate package of infrastructure investment recently approved by the House would provide $40 billion instead. But both fall short of the $110 billion needed over the next 10 years to adequately address this crisis.
As congressional leaders work toward a common package, they must approve funding at levels that meet the need rather than focusing on the price tag.
The ordeal Linda McNeil has endured for the past two decades is a reminder of why this mission is so urgent, and why advancing environmental justice is a core part of what we have a right to expect from our government.
“Imagine what it’s like to pump your own waste out,” her daughter, Eileen, said. “And then write a check for your taxes.”
That shouldn’t be happening in Mount Vernon. It shouldn’t be happening anywhere.
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Catherine Flowers is the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. She is vice chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Committee. Mitchell Bernard is chief counsel of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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