“Watered Down Justice:” NRDC Links Safe Drinking Water Act Violations to Widespread Environmental Injustice

By: Alisha Faherty

A recent collaboration between the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Coming Clean, and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA) confirms what some our country’s most vulnerable already know: low-income and minority communities are disproportionately impacted by environmental harms compared to their more affluent, white counterparts.[1] The report comes at the heels of the most recent drinking water crisis in Newark, New Jersey, dubbed “the next Flint,”[2] where NRDC has sued the city for violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) as well as the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule.[3] The city’s drinking water exceeded the federal standard for lead by up to four times, mirroring past crises from Washington, D.C. to Flint.[4] If Flint and Newark have revealed anything, it is not only that our current drinking water regulatory scheme is wholly inadequate, but also that it is our most vulnerable communities who ultimately pay the price.[5]

The three organizations analyzed data of nationwide SDWA violations from 2016 to 2019, and have found a direct relationship between specific sociodemographic characteristics, namely race, income, ethnicity and language, and drinking water violations.[6] The data identified 406 counties with the highest rates of health-based drinking water violations that also had the highest racial, ethnic, and language vulnerability.[7] The study further found that, “the percentage of systems with violations for 12 consecutive quarters (i.e., systems in chronic noncompliance) was 40 percent higher in counties with the highest racial, ethnic, and language vulnerability….”[8] Not only, therefore, are SDWA violations occurring more frequently in vulnerable communities, but they are also persisting year after year. These sociodemographic factors of race, ethnicity and language also had the strongest relationship to slow and inadequate enforcement of the SDWA beyond the violations themselves.[9]

From 2016 to 2019, nearly 130 million Americans received their drinking water from a water system that violated the SDWA.[10] This study proves that the very Act that was enacted to ensure the safety of our drinking water is now failing us. The strong correlation between SDWA violations and sociodemographic factors such as race and income further displays how the Act systematically burdens our most vulnerable communities, a paradigm the Environmental Justice Movement has maintained for years.[11] The solution to our drinking water crisis, then, must go beyond an overhaul of the federal regulatory scheme to include the active participation of the very communities who are disproportionately impacted by environmental injustice to ensure safe drinking water access for all—no matter what color hand reaches for the tap.

Image From Newark Drinking Water Crisis.

[1] Kristi Pullen Fedinick, Steve Taylor & Michele Roberts, Watered Down Justice 1 (NRDC, Coming Clean & EJHA eds., 2019), https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/watered-down-justice-report.pdf.

[2] Molly Enking, ‘The Next Flint,’ and America’s Problem With Lead in its Water, Grist (Aug. 19, 2019), https://grist.org/article/the-next-flint-and-americas-problem-with-lead-in-its-water/.

[3] Bryan Anselm, NRDC and NEW Caucus Take Newark to Court Over Dangerous Lead Levels, NRDC (June 26, 2018), https://www.nrdc.org/experts/nrdc/nrdc-and-new-caucus-take-newark-court-over-dangerous-lead-levels.

[4] Id.

[5] See Erik Olson and Kristi Pullen Fedinick, What’s In Your Water? Flint and Beyond 7 (NRDC ed., June 2016), https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/whats-in-your-water-flint-beyond-report.pdf.

[6] Fedinick, Taylor & Roberts, supra note 1, at 1, 6.

[7] Id. at 6.

[8] Id. at 7.

[9] Id. at 1.

[10] NRDC, New Drinking Water Report: Communities of Color More Likely to Suffer Drinking Water Violations For Years (Sep. 24, 2019), https://www.nrdc.org/media/2019/190924.

[11] See Fedinick, Taylor & Roberts, supra note 1, at 1.


  1. This is such an important topic- I have a background in drinking water treatment design and looking at data from across the country, this is indisputable. It’s great to see such a credible, definitive study has come forward. I thought it was notable that the report points directly to EPA in finding factors of race, ethnicity and language have the “strongest relationship to slow and inadequate enforcement of the SDWA” – hopefully some good change can come from this.

  2. This is very interesting Alisha! So many environmental injustices disproportionately impact vulnerable communities. Many of these communities do not have appropriate political representation, which makes it even more difficult for their voices to be heard. It will be very interesting to see how the communities get integrated into the discussion in order to find a solution.

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