Environmental racism hurts small Louisiana town

This is an opinion article and does not reflect the views of The Tulane Hullabaloo.

A popular, but incorrect, assumption is that wealthy countries are the best places to live, regardless of identity. As seen in the small, predominately black town of St. Joseph, Louisiana, this is not true. For years, the quality of water has declined, culminating in December when the town declared a public health emergency.

Like Flint, Michigan, elevated lead levels due to poor infrastructure have put the lives of black Americans at risk. Without extreme action on the part of the federal government, it is only going to get worse.

Water is vital for day-to-day life. There’s no getting around it.

Access to clean water has always been an issue of class and race. Regardless of nation or culture, marginalized individuals sacrifice time, money and energy out of their day to get clean water for themselves and their families. Many Americans, unfortunately, assume that this scenario only occurs in developing regions of the world.

An investigative report last year found that there were almost 3,000 areas across the country with higher rates of lead poisoning than Flint, in many cases also due to poor infrastructure. Lead poisoning results in developmental delays and stunted development in children. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these areas are predominately low-income.

Lead isn’t the only obstacle to accessing clean water. California and other western states are already experiencing high levels of drought, despite more rainy days the past few months. A 2014 report published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that in 40 of 50 states, water management officials expected some level of water shortages.

The situation differs across regional lines. St. Joseph, while bearing similarities to Flint, is still a different place. When approaching the issue of water, we must start locally and work outwards.

In 2013, the city of St. Joseph was granted $6 million in state funding to repair water lines. Since the mayor had failed to turn in the city’s mandatory financial audit on time, however, these funds were withheld. This bureaucratic failure resulted in this public health issue that the state now must correct.

It isn’t chance that St. Joseph is predominately black. The intersection of access to water and race has been discussed for a long time, alongside other issues of environmental racism. In 2008, an Ohio town was granted access to water after more than 50 years of requesting access from the county. Zanesville, Ohio is not rural and not terribly small, with a population of 25,000. For a long time, however, it was majority black. This trend is not an isolated incident, and similar cases exist across the country.

To be clear, this is a major problem for the state government. On the tail-end of a terrible year for the state budget, Governor John Bel Edwards is and has been scrambling to fix some critical issues across the state. These issues include flooding in Baton Rouge, correcting for one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and, now, water management. The state needs an aggressive and unified approach, or it is likely that St. Joseph will not be the only Louisiana municipality without water.

There are many viable approaches to solving the issue of clean water access, but they require funding and public support. If individuals are not making noise, government support will continue to go where the money is—predominately large corporations. In Louisiana, this means Big Oil and the chemical plants of Cancer Alley. To bring attention to these clearly marginalized communities, we cannot let it be swept under the rug. These issues affect all of us, regardless of access to water.

Environmental racism is a large issue for our country, with severe cases occurring everywhere. The assumption that issues of public health are treated fairly by the government at every level is wrong, as evidenced by the treatment of victims of color. With climate change worsening, water is only going to become more scarce at the global level. It is everyone’s duty to ensure that no one, regardless of race or class, is left behind in the struggle for access to clean water.

Kathryne is a senior at Newcomb-Tulane College. They can be reached at [email protected].

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