Use of Community-Owned and -Managed Research to Assess the Vulnerability of Water and Sewer Services in Marginalized and Underserved Environmental Justice Communities

Article excerpt


Low-income communities of color straddling rural-urban unincorporated boundaries of municipalities across the U.S. often fall within extraterritorial jurisdiction, joint-planning agreement, or industrial zoning designations that tend to concentrate locally unwanted land uses and psychosocial stressors and limit access to health-promoting infrastructure (Maantay, 2001, 2002; Wilson, 2009; Wilson, Hutson, & Mujahid, 2009). Residents of these communities are often disproportionately and adversely burdened by co-occurring environmental justice issues such as landfills, wastewater treatment plants, Superfund sites, brownfields, toxic release inventory facilities, hazardous waste sites, heavily trafficked highways, and concentrated animal feeding operations (Bullard, 1990, 1994; Bullard, Mohai, Saha, & Wright, 2007; Maantay, 2002; Norton et al., 2007; Wilson, Bumpass, Wilson, & Snipes, 2008; Wilson, Cooper, Heaney, & Wilson, 2008; Wilson et al., 2009; Wilson, Wilson, Heaney, & Cooper, 2008; Wing, Cole, & Grant, 2000; Wing & Wolf, 2000). Residents of these communities tend to rely on a complex mixture of unregulated private wells and septic systems and inadequate public drinking water and sewer services (Bullard, 1990, 1994; Bullard et al., 2007; Wilson, Cooper et al., 2008; Wilson, Wilson et al., 2008; Wing et al., 2000).

National media attention focused on this issue during the case of Jerry R. Kennedy et al. v. City of Zanesville, Ohio (Johnson, 2008; Smyth, 2008). Residents of Coal Run, Ohio, a predominately black community built on top of abandoned coal mines located just outside the Zanesville incorporated city limit, were awarded a settlement of nearly $11 million after repeated requests for public water service were denied by local officials for more than five decades (Johnson, 2008; Smyth, 2008).

Because a complex mixture of private and regulated public drinking water services often exists in these marginalized communities, the benefits of routine federal monitoring of community water systems and required public notification and reporting under the Safe Drinking Water Act amendments of 1996 are not shared by all (Francis et al., 1984; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [U.S. EPA], 1996). State and local regulations of private wells and septic systems, where they exist, typically require a minimum amount of testing and monitoring (usually once at the time of construction and installation).

Given the limited extent of testing and monitoring performed on drinking water and sewer services in these low-income communities of color, knowledge of the magnitude of water quality problems and public drinking water and sewer service disparities is limited. Recent research by Uhlmann and co-authors (2009) examined differences in risks of sporadic enteric disease by drinking water source (groundwater vs. surface water) and type (regulated, public vs. private) (Uhlmann et al., 2009). The authors' findings of an increased risk of enteric disease among individuals living on land parcels serviced by private wells underscore the importance of improving our knowledge of the vulnerability of drinking water and sewer services in such marginalized communities straddling rural-urban boundaries (Uhlmann et al., 2009).

Community-based participatory research (CBPR) has advanced popular movements for environmental justice (Arcury, Quandt, & Dearry, 2001; Avery, Wing, Marshall, & Schiffman, 2004; Corburn, 2002a, 2002b; Israel et al., 2001; Israel et al., 2005; Israel et al., 2006; Minkler, Vasquez, Tajik, & Petersen, 2006; O'Fallon & Dearry, 2002; Parker et al., 2003; Wing & Wolf, 2000). The denial of basic amenities, which include regulated public drinking water service, regulated public sewer service, storm water drainage, paved roads, sidewalks, community lighting, curbside solid waste collection, and emergency medical, fire, and police protection services, is being identified by community-based organizations (CBOs) as an emerging environmental justice issue (Heaney, Wilson, & Wilson, 2007; Wilson, Bumpass et al. …