Archive for December, 2013

The Ache of Injustice

December 19, 2013 Leave a comment
I peered deep into the 50 gallon plastic container at the few inches of water remaining at the bottom. Just moments before, the bucket was full- but after 20 minutes of using this water to pressure wash the inside of the 2500 gal water tank that provides water for the Ramirez* home, my plastic container was practically empty. I began to drag the container to the open field just behind the home to dump out the remaining water in attempt to begin the clean-up process after a day full of manual labor, frantic trips to the hardware store, sunburn, sore muscles, and homemade tamales. Just then, Mara*, the female head of the household, walked outside of her home and it dawned on me – maybe she wants to save this water. Upon asking, she hurriedly brought me a 5 gallon open bucket to pour the remaining water from my container into, to be saved for later use in the home- perhaps to fill toilets, bathe with, or be used for cooking.
2500 gallon water tank
photo: 2500 gallon water tank.
view of algae inside water tank
photo: view of algae inside water tank.
water from tank at the faucet
photo: water from tank at the faucet.

Over 600,000 households located in unincorporated, predominately Hispanic neighborhoods, known as colonias, find themselves in this reality everyday of their lives. Water often costs anywhere between 5 and 40 percent of a monthly household income, to be compared with the US average of 2.5%. Every drop saved is gold. Every drop saved is money for propane gas, for gasoline, for food, for electricity, for school supplies, for livelihoods.

For a short, gut-wrenching 8 hours- I experienced the ache of water insecurity. In undertaking an attempt to rid one family’s tank of the algae that had been accumulating for over 10 years, I experienced disgust of the water quality that is used to ‘clean’ bodies, dishes, clothes, floors, etc., fear of exposure to water-borne contaminants in the tank, stress associated with working out the logistics to obtain the proper equipment- including a fresh water source for the cleaning process, not to mention the process to transport the 50 gallons in an over sized, heavy, leaky, plastic container- thirst for hydration that was unquenchable other than by a 30 minute trip to the nearest gas station, frustration when the outdoor hose had a broken nozzle- rendering it unfit to be connected to any power washer, in addition to electrical outlets not working, lack of extension cords, and the loss of a water vacuum extension wand as it was dropped inside the 10-foot tall tank – unreachable without a nerve-wrenching trip inside the enclosed space that wreaked of mold, a blistering sunburn, muscle soreness, exhaustion, and an empty pocket.

UTEP Engineers climb inside water tank to retrieve vacuum extension
photo: UTEP Engineers climb inside water tank to retrieve vacuum extension.

The process to clean the inside of a household water tank, for those households that are not connected to a municipal or private water distribution system, takes place about twice a year. The process to schedule and pay the water hauler to fill your water tank when it is empty takes place anywhere from 3 times per month to once per month, depending on family size. And families spend close to $24 to $96 per month on purified water for cooking, drinking, and brushing teeth, not including the cost of gas and time to reach the local market or water vending machine, the time and labor of cleaning the purified water storage containers, and the worry associated with the inability to pay at any and all of the above points.

Welcome to the United States of America. Where less than 1% of the population lacking access to basic water infrastructure equals 1.5 million people carrying the burden of water provision for their families every single day.

*Names changed for confidentiality

No Running Water – First Nations in Canada

December 19, 2013 Leave a comment

First Nations communities face poor drinking water and sanitation services. One report documents how more than 40 per cent of the homes on Canadian First Nations without running water are in Manitoba, even though Manitoba has only 15 per cent of the country’s reserve housing stock. Canadian data (2010) from the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada documented that 3,401 households did not have plumbing service.

The Winnipeg Free Press has a series on water and sanitation insecurity among the communities in Manitoba, Canada  –> check out the documentary No Running Water

The Environmental Disaster You’ve Never Heard Of: The Kirtland Air Force Base Jet Fuel Spill

December 19, 2013 Leave a comment

La Jicarita


The fighter jets and military planes that blast into the skies each day above Albuquerque’s Kirtland Air Force Base (KAFB) consume millions of gallons of jet fuel each year. In order to serve this fleet, the Air Force stores enormous amounts of fuel and distributes it throughout the base via a network of tanks, pipes and pumps. In the early 1950s, the base replaced leaking tanks and aging pipelines with a new fuels facility it promised would modernize and make more safe the handling and distribution of jet fuel. The facility received its first trainload of jet fuel and aviation gas in 1953. Almost immediately, and for the next 45 years, it leaked jet fuel into the surrounding soil.

The “leak” continued, undetected, until 1992 when workers observed a huge surface plume in the soil surrounding the fuel facility. The Air Force largely ignored requests by the…

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Investigating environmental justice in 2014

December 19, 2013 Leave a comment

I envision that 2014 will offer opportunities for the blog to investigate new challenges for the environmental justice community. The “energy-water” nexus will increase in importance as the hydraulic fracturing and rural community water systems draw from the same groundwater source to supply their constituents.  The increased growth of desalination plants in Texas and beyond also require further inquiry as the energy required and waste produced have consequences beyond the immediate production site.  The continued challenge of providing safe drinking water to the most vulnerable will require further consideration –whether it means addressing old infrastructure, new technological fixes for water delivery, or alternative regulatory or governance structures.  The final themes that requires deeper engagement is that of climate change and adaptation and social vulnerability to hazards.  While not new in the environmental justice community, the increased frequency and intensity of environmental change require us to address these issues directly in the coming year.

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