Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Consensus on Safe Water
distributed 4/26/19 - ©2019

On Monday, in a special Earth Day version of Eco-Justice Notes, I mentioned the just-released "Presidential Message on Earth Day." I invited you to "reflect on the strange and mixed messages there, and the fact that no environmental problems are named."

Today, I'm going to do something unusual, and lift up one sentence of that presidential message as a hopeful sign of possible bi-partisan action on an important issue.

The basic premise of the Earth Day statement from the White House is still deeply flawed -- and I'll start there -- but even across wildly different political perspectives there can be common ground that leads to constructive change. That's good news.

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Mr. Trump's message writer had an upbeat take on the point of Earth Day. "Earth Day is a celebration of the abundant beauty and life-sustaining bounty of our natural environment. On this day, we reaffirm our responsibility to protect God's wondrous creation for future generations."

Please remember that the Trump administration is resorting to extraordinary measures to block the Our Children's Trust lawsuit in federal court. That's the case where 21 youth have filed suit against the government, claiming that decades of US policies have created a climate crisis which is denying the right of future generations to a livable future. If the administration really sees a responsibility to future generations, they could begin by letting the Juliana suit go to trial. (Disclaimer: Eco-Justice Ministries is the named agency in an amici curiae filing from religious groups in support of the plaintiffs. We really want to see this case proceed!)

Looking at the history of Earth Day, I'll also insist that the now-annual occasion is not a happy and fun celebration. Its roots are deeply political and activist. Gaylord Nelson, "the founder of Earth Day," reflected on the planning and achievements of that 1970 event.

If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the political agenda. ... The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters. ... The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air -- and they did so with spectacular exuberance.

I'll note, too, that the presidential message has a superficial, and utterly non-ecological, view of the environment. Apparently, the administration sees the natural world as "some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth" and an "abundance of natural resources." Nature is a pool of stuff for us to use, whether for tourism or extraction. That perspective of use certainly seems to be the driving force behind all sorts of government policies through the last two years.

The five paragraph presidential message is full of clues about why I am so persistently disappointed, frustrated and angry with the policies of the Trump administration.

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And yet, within that misguided and deceptive presidential message, there is one sentence that gives space for awareness and action across differing environmental perspectives.

Under my Administration, we are improving the quality of life for communities across America by strengthening the security and reliability of our drinking water and accelerating spending on water infrastructure.

In October, Mr. Trump signed "America's Water Infrastructure Act," which had just passed both houses of Congress. NRDC explains, "While much of the bill focuses on traditional water projects to be carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers, it includes several provisions directly addressing drinking water infrastructure."

That aging infrastructure needs a lot of expensive work. The majority of it was installed in the early 1900s, the 1930s, and from 1950 into the 1970s. Because of the lifespan of materials used during each of these timeframes, the US water infrastructure is old and in dire need of repair and/or replacement. That's a problem in communities all around the country.

Probably the most dramatic recent example of an infrastructure crisis is the tragic situation in Flint, Michigan. A change is the city's water source triggered extensive contamination as old pipes shed toxic materials, most notably high levels of lead.

Other infrastructure issues are causing particular problems in small water systems, which are unable to afford the equipment for meeting current water standards. On some Indian Reservations, the confluence of poverty, complex funding pathways, and dispersed populations creates special infrastructure challenges. The 2018 infrastructure act does authorize some funding specifically for reservations.

Last fall's NRDC article emphasizes, though, that the bipartisan legislation "only authorizes these programs -- they need to actually be funded through appropriations laws in separate legislation." Getting those appropriations passed is more likely when there is support from both political parties in Congress, and when the White House has named such water projects as a featured environmental agenda.

If you're looking for an Earth Month political action that might have some positive results, contact your Representative and Senators, and urge them to include full funding for water infrastructure in upcoming appropriations bills.

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I do celebrate the potential for political progress on water issues that address public health. I have some questions and concerns, though, about how the Trump administration might focus their efforts.

That one sentence from this week's presidential message spoke of "strengthening the security and reliability of our drinking water." As I've researched the phrasing of "water security," I've found that there initiatives that have nothing to do with replacing pipes or improving water delivery systems. Rather, they take a national security perspective, and seek to protect water systems from cyber-attacks. That may be a worthwhile thing, but it seems to be a real stretch from an Earth Day message about quality of life.

My search on water security also surfaced another very significant and ongoing issue. Google gave me a long list of articles dealing with water problems in the town of Security, Colorado, where pollution from a nearby Air Force base has contaminated the water supply. I wrote about that local crisis with perfluorinated chemicals 20 months ago. Two months ago, the New York Times ran a significant article documenting the problem across the country: "Toxic 'Forever Chemicals' in Drinking Water Leave Military Families Reeling."

The NYT writes of local and state governments that are "fighting with defense officials over the extent to which the military must clean up the mess." That seems to be a question, not of congressional appropriations, but of how the military prioritizes its own spending.

I can't resist a cynical comment on this situation. The Trump administration has named its commitment to water security. Mr. Trump also has announced that there is a lot of money in military construction budgets that can be shifted around to address a national emergency. Perhaps -- although I won't hold my breath -- some of that military spending could go to the cleanup of "forever chemicals" spreading from military bases into water supplies, instead of being used for a border wall. Congress voted its disapproval of that emergency allocation for a wall. Would an emergency water allocation get more support?

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I do want to close with the element of hope for shared political action on water safety.

People of all political persuasions recognize the need for safe water. Let's build on that consensus to provide funding for necessary work in communities where there is a real threat. That would be one constructive step in protecting communities and future generations.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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