Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Leaky pipes, budget cuts, & the vine that ate the South

In Jackson, Mississippi, people are drinking bottled water, filling their bathtubs with water for washing dishes, and using portable toilets because the city is repairing a major water pipeline that has broken many times. It’s one of “many problematic pipes in a city where boil-water notices are common.”

Water in Martin County, Kentucky comes from the Tug Fork River, which is polluted by sewage and coal waste. The Eastern Kentucky county has been heavily mined for decades, and the water flow, sometimes cut off because there isn’t enough, becomes contaminated when filth seeps through the dry pipes. The water district is under its third investigation since 2002.

Lebanon, Tennessee is a booming town that has been using a big chunk of money from the state’s Department of Environment and Conservation budget (which comes from the Environmental Protection Agency) to update its wastewater facilities and water infrastructure. With a rapidly growing population, it can’t keep up with demand, and if EPA funding is cut, the town may have to take out bank loans.

As a large part of his campaign strategy, President Trump pledged to spend major federal money on infrastructure, and now says he will ask Congress for a $1 trillion budget. EPA head Scott Pruitt made it known that he will focus on water infrastructure: “We will talk about how to include water infrastructure along with roads and bridges,” Pruitt said after he was confirmed. “We know we have a water infrastructure issue…we know that when it goes wrong, it goes wrong badly.” People across the country — whether it’s Jackson, Mississippi or Flint, Michigan — are, despite the delays and lawsuits and unkept promises, waiting with bated breath for them to deliver. Many of the places that stand to lose from EPA and infrastructure budget cuts are filled with ardent Trump supporters, too: Wilson County, Tennessee, where Lebanon is located, and Martin County, Kentucky overwhelmingly voted for him.

A 2017 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. water infrastructure a “D,” saying the need for wastewater infrastructure exceeds $271 billion, and there’s a $105 billion gap in water funding in general. But Trump plans to slash the EPA budget, an agency that would help fund many of these improvements, by 31 percent. Earlier this year, he overturned the “stream protection rule,” which loosens regulations on mining companies dumping waste and toxins into streams, putting water sources for millions of people at risk of contamination from toxins like arsenic, chromium, and radon. The budget cuts, deregulation, and gaping holes in our water infrastructure programs pave the way for more public-private partnerships with water municipalities, but research shows those aren’t very popular or effective.

Unfortunately for these Southern communities and thousands of others across the country dealing with aging water lines, crumbling dams, sewage overflow, and water shortages, the fix is not quite as simple as a political party vote, or a trillion dollars, or an understanding that things go wrong. Water infrastructure problems and environmental pollution are non-partisan issues that disproportionately impact low-income and minority communities, and a massive infrastructure budget won’t get rid of lead, or stop mining companies from dumping sludge, or prevent more people from moving into a city and using its water supply. Judging by the tangled government agency budgets and the cuts already being made, it may not even fix the leaky pipes.

Stories worth your time

Kudzu, a thick, fast-growing, overwhelming vine, is known as the plant that ate the South. It’s everywhere: up hillsides and trees, all over former mining sites, in fields and yards. There’s no containing it when it starts growing, which is why the region has always had a difficult relationship with it. But lately, people are starting to use kudzu for medicine, food, and art as an attempt to shift our relationship with the plant. And it might be working, according to this Asheville Citizen-Times piece.

CityLab did a story on a dot map of the U.S. that shows the educational achievement gap. I started with Atlanta and then got lost poking around, looking at the stark differences in educational levels in urban and rural areas.

Sitting with EPA on the chopping block is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Florida scientists sent a letter voicing their concerns about getting rid of NOAA satellites, which help track pollution like the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill, as well as dangerous algae outbreaks and other information about marine life.

News flying under the radar

A coal industry-backed bill in West Virginia would basically eliminate mine inspections: “The heart of the legislation is a section that simply eliminates the ability of state mine safety office inspectors to issue notices of violation or levy fines for mine operators or coal companies for any safety hazards unless they can prove there is an ‘imminent danger’ of death or serious physical harm.”

A new study on Louisiana wetlands shows how dire of a situation they’re in. In the westernmost part of coastal Louisiana, more than 60 percent of study sites are on track to drown.

Georgia and South Carolina are tightening pipeline regulations, including a ban on permits close to the coast and restrictions on eminent domain claims, which allow the government to take private property for public use or in this case, for the use of pipeline companies.

Lastly, I wrote an essay for High Country News about my reaction to public lands the first time I drove out West, and now I’m curious about yours. Do you remember the first time you realized such a huge portion of the U.S. is federal land? What are your favorite public parks/forests/spaces in the South? I’d love to hear about them. Send me an email or tweet at me: @lyndseygilpin.

As always, thanks for reading! Have a lovely week.