US Navy fills potable water for residents at the Navy Exchange Mall.
Washington CNN  — 

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Sagging highways that choke off business. Old power grids that break down and plunge entire cities into darkness. Lead water pipes that sicken people who use them.

“Infrastructure” might sound like a vague, borderline meaningless word, but the dilapidated state of US infrastructure – of the country’s roads, bridges, internet services, water pipes, public transit and on and on – has made many people’s quality of life decidedly worse.

It’s impossible to overstate the severity of the issue. Consider what’s happening in Hawaii. Just last week, the state’s Department of Health ordered the Navy to take immediate action to clean the drinking water at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, following the discovery of a petroleum leak at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, near Honolulu.

Built during World War II, the aging facility has been a source of anxiety for residents and activists for years. It sits a mere 100 feet above the Red Hill aquifer, which supplies drinking water not only to the Navy base but also to other parts of Hawaii.

“Places like Hawaii and Guam and Okinawa and Puerto Rico are treated as marginal, as if we can be sacrificed,” Kyle Kajihiro, a lecturer in geography and ethnic studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, told CNN. “This is why residents see this pattern of environmental destruction and contamination.”

In light of such issues, the Environmental Protection Agency last Thursday released more than $7 billion in new federal water infrastructure funding to state governments and tribes, and urged them to use this allotment from President Joe Biden’s recent $1.2 trillion infrastructure package to address the challenges faced by historically underserved and marginalized communities.

Here’s how poor infrastructure is harming people across the US:


The defining mood of many people in Honolulu right now is anger.

So far, the unfolding water crisis has pushed more than 700 people from their homes. Congressional and state officials have demanded that the Navy suspend and drain the Red Hill fuel tanks, which also experienced a major spill in 2014.

Marti Townsend, a volunteer with the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi, said that it’s unfortunate that it took a disaster for Red Hill to receive more widespread attention. Like Kajihiro, the lecturer, she suggested that bias toward Hawaii – which, notably, is home to a variety of ethnic groups – at least partly explains the state’s relative invisibility in political matters.

“I think that, on a fundamental level, there’s bias toward Hawaii. We’ve often been viewed as expendable,” she said. “This isn’t the first time the US military has done things that have jeopardized the quality of our environment and our public health.”

Townsend added, “World War II tanks in other places have been replaced without controversy and without the need for a disaster. That (discrepancy) points to an environmental justice issue: Other communities can get their needs met, but federal decision-makers had to think twice about whether it’s really worth protecting Hawaii’s water supply from fuel.”

Kajihiro sees the President’s new infrastructure package, signed into law last month, as an opportunity for Hawaii to move forward.

“Investment in infrastructure is critical. I hope that some of the funding that’s now available will go toward fixing this deteriorating system. These tanks are 80 years old. They weren’t built to last forever,” he said.

Townsend echoed this judicious optimism.

“When you invest in infrastructure, you build your economy because people get jobs. You protect your environment because you no longer rely on crumbling infrastructure. And people’s quality of life goes up. There’s no reason not to invest in infrastructure,” she said. “And, honestly, Red Hill is an example of what happens when you don’t.”

Heavy rains flood the front yard of a Lowndes County resident.

Lowndes County, Alabama

On some level, Catherine Coleman Flowers, an environmental activist, has always been aware of majority-Black Lowndes County’s flawed wastewater systems.

Growing up in the rural area, she had a house with a cesspool, and then later a septic tank that constantly failed and caused sewage backups. Her family also had an outhouse.

Flowers, who’s been ringing the alarm about the lack of serviceable wastewater systems in Lowndes and elsewhere since the early 2000s, calls the widespread yet overlooked issue “America’s dirty secret.”

Lowndes’ sewage systems are so inadequate that, just in November, the US Department of Justice launched a probe to investigate whether the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Lowndes County Health Department have been jeopardizing Black residents’ health by failing to properly dispose of raw sewage.

This is the first investigation of its kind that the Department of Justice is conducting under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal funding from engaging in discriminatory practices.

The probe came only after years of protest from residents and activists, who pointed out that, on rainy days, raw sewage is often pushed back into houses because septic tanks don’t work properly.

A 2017 study found that hookworm, a disease associated with severe poverty and poor sanitation, is rampant in parts of the US, including in Lowndes.

Flowers hopes that the new infrastructure package, along with the probe, will help Lowndes move in the right direction.

“It’s a down payment on years of neglect of rural communities,” she told CNN. “But more needs to be done. It’s just the beginning.”

Flowers underscored the need for accountability for the design of wastewater systems, and the importance of involving members of the community.

“The community can tell you what’s already failed so that engineers don’t try to do the same thing all over again,” she said. “That’s my main concern with these infrastructure dollars: I don’t want people to put in place the same old failed systems, and then we’re right back where we started.”

Residents of Benton Harbor pick up bottled water distributed by the state.

Benton Harbor, Michigan

Benton Harbor, which is around 85% Black, has a longstanding issue with lead leaching into water from pipes.

In October, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive directive to make free bottled water, filters and premixed baby formula more widely available. In addition, she promised that, within 18 months, the state would replace the city’s lead pipes and service lines.

Yet for many, these actions feel belated. Benton Harbor’s water system has had elevated levels of lead since at least 2018, as a coalition of groups explained in a September petition filed to the EPA.

“Prior to the petition, people continued to consume high levels of lead, and the state would just accept that. The state agency would just adjust chemicals at the treatment plant to try and prevent the lead from the pipes leaking out,” Cyndi Roper, a senior policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the filers of the petition, told CNN in October.

In November, the EPA ordered the city to swiftly address the issue.

The devastating irony is that the water crisis currently afflicting Benton Harbor is occurring in the same state where the Flint scandal shocked the country from 2014 to 2019.

Other parts of the country are familiar with the struggle for clean water. “There are frequent notices directing residents to boil water before consumption. Sometimes the water coming out of the tap is brown, and sometimes nothing comes out at all,” the journalist Katia Riddle wrote for a November NPR story, on the water challenges beleaguering Native Americans in Oregon.

For Benton Harbor residents, Biden’s infrastructure plan arrives as a reprieve, given the stress often on state and local budgets. The package allocates $55 billion to improve water infrastructure, per the text.

Benton Harbor’s water crisis is only one example of the way failing infrastructure can affect people’s everyday lives.

“Nobody – nobody – should have water that they can’t drink but have to pay for,” the Rev. Edward Pinkney, the president and chairman of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, told CNN’s Miguel Marquez in October. “This should not be happening to any community.”