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Are you getting the basic amenities your taxes paid for?

2012 December 7

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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.

Removal of 20,000 Gallon Underground Petroleum Storage Tanks

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?

About the author: Omega R. Wilson is President of the West End Revitalization Association (WERA) of Mebane, N.C. Founding board chairman in 1994 when WERA incorporated as 501-( c)(3) non-profit community development corporation (CDC). He led board and staff through capacity building as a community-based environmental protection (CBEP) organization under U.S. EPA guidelines. Wilson is a former member of the U.S. EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), and Advisory Committee for the Environmental Leadership Program – Southeast Regional Network, and he is also a member of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. Wilson’s educational background includes media and communications, community organizing, and environmental justice leadership.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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16 Responses leave one →
  1. Carlton Eley permalink
    December 7, 2012

    I am speechless. This is an important blog entry. When I was in graduate school for urban planning, I wish we had access to case studies like this.

    In the academic setting, cases like this one are sometimes discussed in a detached manner. As Vice President Joe Biden suggests, “it’s time to do some nation-building here at home.”

    Thank you Omega for sharing this powerful story in print and video.

  2. Robert Regan permalink
    December 8, 2012

    This a a very powerful story and so true. All Americans should have the right to basic amenities! Our tax dollars should be used here at home to stregthen our communities and create opportunities for healthies neighborhoods. Great video and blog!

  3. Robert Regan permalink
    December 8, 2012

    No one should have to drink water with human waste in it!!!! How could the local govt, or the state allow something like that to happen…..

  4. Carlton Eley permalink
    December 8, 2012

    Thanks for posting a longer video for Omega Wilson. Almost four minutes. For this series, the longer videos are more effective.

    Representative Donna Christensen’s video was less than three minutes. Although her content was good, it would have been helpful to hear more observations. After all, how often does the public see members of Congress offer remarks about environmental justice.

  5. George C. Wilson permalink
    December 10, 2012

    You have stayed on point for so many years, fighting through some tough times. Remember when you were told “we are going to wait until you died”. We learned from mom and dad what can be accomplished with a peice of bailling wire and an occasional “sugar, honey, ice tea” fit.

  6. DuShawn King permalink
    December 11, 2012

    Mr. Wilson,

    Thank you for the post!

    It has been shared across our social media networks.

    We remain committed to addressing such basic quality of life disparities.

  7. Hilton Kelley permalink
    December 12, 2012

    Hopefully this video inspire more people to take a look around their community and see what they can do to make life better for those who live in low income or poor communities so the young people and the elderly there can have a better quality of life and a shot at having a long healthy life.

  8. Deborah Harrison Gant permalink
    December 13, 2012

    Hello Mr. Wilson,
    It is great to see you after all these 32 years. How’s the family? I started a non-profit organization in 2002 and things are looking great! We just received a brick building donated to our organization 2 weeks ago, the building appraised for $64,000.00. Praise God from whom all blessings flows!

  9. Deborah Huffington permalink
    March 5, 2013

    Mr. Wilson,

    Your story is a very powerful one! I wonder how many people ever ask the question, are my tax dollars actually being used to benefit my community and if not, Why???? It’s amazing that citizens of our country have to fight for the right to basic amenities. Thank you for the very thought provoking blog!


  10. Jimmy permalink
    March 7, 2013

    Wow !!! People walking in human waste… now this is a story that all Americans should be listening too and demanding that it never happen again in our country. This should be on all the news networks. Mr. Wilson thank you for sharing this with everyone, is this happening in other communities as well?

    • Omega Wilson permalink
      March 7, 2013

      Thanks Jimmy and everyone who viewed and added comments to this EPA blog. The answer to Jimmy’s question is, for poor and people of color, yes this denial sewer collection and safe drinking water services is reality in all 50 states, if you just look. As a Basic Amenities activist and EPA NEJAC member, I traveled from the east to the west coast, Michigan to New Orleans, plus Canada. I have even gotten calls/emails and face-to-face visits from officials from China who seem surprised that the denial of basic public health amenities in America looks like a “developing country” Chinese problem!

  11. Robert permalink
    March 16, 2013

    Mr. Wilson, there are some very powerful videos in this series and I have to say that this is one of my favorites.

    What role do you see for other “Federal Agencies” to play in assuring that basic ammenities are provided and that overburdened communities are protected?


  12. Omega Wilson permalink
    March 19, 2013

    Robert, for two years we have been pushing EPA, as the leader of the Title VI Interagency Workgroup, to insure that all federal agencies that signed President Obama Memorandum of Understanding for Environmental Justice-August 2011 stop awarding taxpayers’ money to local government agencies who continue to deny basic amenities to the poor and people of color under their jurisdictions.

    We need more community organizations to file Title VI administrative complaints with DOJ as we have done. The City of Mebane is currently installing more new sewer lines in our community as a result the EPA’s blog/interview/YouTube on WERA!

  13. Jane permalink
    March 23, 2013

    Mr. Wilson,

    You have really opened my eyes to an issue that I thought would have been dealt with 50 years ago. I drive from Soutern Georgia to Baltimore at least once a month and pass the mebane exit and like many people never thought that such a beautiful section of the country could be hiding such a terrible situation. Thank you and the members of your community for demanding and ensuring that change happened! I love social media and video for exposing the truth and sharing stories of how every day americans are improving their communities.

    Jane Wilows

  14. Sajdah Ali-Wilson permalink
    May 6, 2013

    Excellent video and article. It so imperative to call out the social injustices we have lingering in our communities. We can not truly move forward as a developed country and nation when so many of our small towns, neighborhoods, and local homes are still underdeveloped.

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