In many underserved communities of color in the U.S. some residents are still living without safe and clean water and sewer infrastructure, storm water drainage, paved roads, sidewalks, and emergency services. These basic amenities provide a foundation for public health and well-being. Addressing disparities in access to these basic amenities lies at the historical root of the public health, hygiene, and sanitation movements.
One reason that these basic amenities are not enjoyed by all is that decisions about infrastructure extensions and service connections are influenced by economic and development interests. Infrastructure improvements bypass communities of color and low income, while surrounding areas receive services improvements (Heaney, Wing et al., 2011; Johnson, 2008; Smyth, 2008). Additionally, landfills, hazardous waste sites, abandoned underground storage tanks, and other locally unwanted land uses disproportionately affect these same communities, a pattern that has been characterized as environmental injustice (Bullard, 2000; United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1987). Strategies and principles of community-driven and participatory research are being used to reverse historic patterns of infrastructure disparities and improve environmental health conditions, highlighted in this issue of the Journal of Environmental Health by Heaney and co-authors as well as others (Heaney, Wilson et al., 2011; Heaney et al., 2013; Minkler, Vasquez, Tajik, & Petersen, 2008; Wilson, Bumpass, Wilson, & Snipes, 2008; Wing et al., 2008).
Integrating Research and Community Organizing
In 1972, when the town of Chapel Hill purchased 80 acres of land on Eubanks Road to use as a regional landfill, the surrounding Rogers-Eubanks community was comprised predominantly of low-income people of color. The community was strongly opposed to having a landfill nearby. Since 1972, four landfills (two municipal solid waste landfills and two construction and demolition waste landfills), and a solid waste, recycling, white goods, and household hazardous waste convenience center have been opened. Today, residents are still waiting for benefits--a community center, park, and basic amenities--that were promised when the landfill opened in 1972 (Eidenier-Pearce, 2008).
In 2007, the Rogers-Eubanks community achieved 501c3 status as the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association (RENA) through a partnership with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN). Through its work with other local groups RENA founded the Coalition to End Environmental Racism (CEER). CEER became a vehicle for organizing and speaking out with a common voice. RENA then partnered with scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and student members of the Daniel A. Okun Chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The goal of the partnership, described in this issue of the Journal of Environmental Health, was to develop a strategy to address infrastructure disparities and improve environmental health conditions in the Rogers-Eubanks community.
Overcoming Barriers of Fear and Mistrust
Financial and legal liability of the property owner and fear of condemnation create substantial barriers to uncovering failures of private wells and septic systems in low-income...