By Omega Wilson
Many African American communities, like the Mebane, North Carolina community where I grew up, and tribal areas, lack access to basic public health amenities. The denial of or lack of access to “up-to-code” infrastructure (safe drinking water, sewer collection, paved streets, sidewalks, and storm-water management) contributes to disparities in health. Long-term exposure to deficient infrastructure often leads to disproportionately adverse health effects in low-income and minority communities than are evident in predominantly higher-income communities.
Infrastructure code standards are paid for by taxpayers, regulated by federal agencies (under the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act etc.), and maintained by state and local governments. However, in low-income and minority communities, homeowners may not get a return on their property, income, and sale taxes in the form of “basic amenities” that other higher income areas take for granted.
In 1994, when the North Carolina Department of Transportation revealed plans for the construction of 27-mile highway through two African American communities in Mebane, our residents became aware that federal laws prohibited the use of federal money to destroy houses, churches, and cemeteries without fair compensation. Homeowners already had been denied basic amenities for decades and leaking underground storage tanks, that threatened our well water and ground water, had yet to be cleaned up.
As a result, we organized the West End Revitalization Association (WERA) to challenge the planned 8-lane interstate corridor. Residents learned from U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officials that every taxpaying community is entitled to basic amenities guaranteed by the government. WERA translated this “common knowledge” into a list of public health disparities and drafted administrative complaints at DOJ under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and referenced the environmental justice Executive Order 12898 of 1994. DOJ asked six branches of the federal government to investigate the oversight of civil rights and public health guidelines during the highway planning process that had been going on for 16 years, without opportunities for public input.
As a result, there has been a moratorium on construction of the highway since 1999, in order to ensure that actions to mitigate the potential impacts of the construction are put in place. Additionally, more than 100 African American homeowners have had sewer lines installed for the first time, even though homes have been within two-to-three blocks from the municipal sewer treatment plant since it was constructed in 1921. Property owners were required to dig up underground storage tanks and dispose of them. And, federal matching block grants were distributed to rehabilitate houses and repair sidewalks and streets.
My experience working to improve local health and environmental conditions by ensuring that communities have access to infrastructure that reduces health disparities has taught me that we should each ask ourselves: is my community getting the basic amenities our taxed paid for?