A new study suggests a number of minority American neighborhoods are at risk of having unhealthier water than their white counterparts.
By Francie Diep
Walk through an unincorporated stretch of Wake County outside Raleigh, North Carolina, and it might look just as dense and developed as the town proper. But there’s an important, invisible difference: Folks there may not have access to the city’s municipal water system. Instead, their homes draw from private wells and septic tanks.
While not all unincorporated Wake County communities lack piped water, those that have a larger black population are more likely to depend on wells and septic tanks, according to a 2014 study. “They were excluded probably for historical reasons, during the Jim Crow era,” says University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill environmental researcher Jackie MacDonald Gibson, the leader of the 2014 study.
Now, MacDonald Gibson has a new study that demonstrates the toll that history has had on residents’ health. The kitchen tap water in majority-black Wake County communities that depend on wells is more than 50 times more likely to contain coliform bacteria — and more than 700 times more likely to contain E. coli — than the municipal water that’s available to majority-white neighborhoods just next door.
The presence of coliform bacteria and E. coli indicates that the water has been contaminated with sewage, which can make people seriously ill. If these neighborhoods had municipal water, MacDonald Gibson and her colleague Frank Stillo estimate that the number of annual emergency room visits for gastrointestinal illnesses in these areas would drop by more than one-fifth.
But leaders both in the city and in unincorporated neighborhoods have been reluctant to extend water service, citing costs, according to a surveypublished last year. “I think there’s a lack of awareness of the water quality problem in these wells,” MacDonald Gibson says. The effective result is that Wake County’s black residents bear a disproportionate burden of gastrointestinal disease there.
This may not be a problem only in North Carolina. Studies have shown that other majority-white Southern towns have refused to annex surrounding, majority-black neighborhoods and to extend municipal services to them. The practice is so common that it has a name: underbounding. Researchers have also documented towns underbounding Hispanic neighborhoods in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande and California’s Central Valley.
Poor communities of color in the United States have often had to deal with more pollution than their richer, whiter counterparts. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, taught us that one way such environmental injustice happens is when officials make poor decisions and ignore residents’ complaints. Wake County shows that underbounding, whether new or historical, might be another way.
Though it’s common knowledge among environmental researchers that well water is often riskier than municipal water, most politicians and community members are not familiar with the dangers. With this new data in hand, perhaps city officials will finally have the information they need to justify the expense of expanding their municipal water system.