In Australia, government regulators rejected a mining company’s plan to expand two coal mines in the state of New South Wales. The regulators denied the plan due to concerns that the mines would pollute a source of drinking water for the country’s largest city. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Independent Planning Commission denied the proposal from mining giant South32 to extract an additional 78 million tonnes of coal from the mines. The company wanted to lengthen longwall mines that already extend beneath catchments that provide drinking water to Sydney. The region’s water provider opposed the plan, arguing that the expansion needlessly endangers wetlands, water quality, and stream health. Regulators agreed, concluding that the project was not in the public interest.
In India, the central government released its first national budget since the pandemic began. The spending plan includes a large boost for water infrastructure. The government outlined an ambitious five-year, $39 billion initiative to provide piped water to all urban households. Achieving that goal would be a great benefit to the country’s people. But announcing a program and providing funding does not necessarily result in success on the ground. The Indian news magazine Down to Earth notes that a similar government plan to supply piped water to rural households by 2024 is falling short. That initiative was launched in 2019, when only one-sixth of rural households had piped water. Since then, the percentage of rural households with piped water has doubled. But the program is not on track for its 2024 deadline.
In northern Minnesota, activists calling themselves water protectors have organized a makeshift camp to oppose the replacement of Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline. The Bemidji Pioneer reports that activist Taysha Martineau bought a piece of land next to Enbridge’s pipeline corridor, where project opponents have gathered in an attempt to delay construction until all court cases against the pipeline are resolved. Line 3 begins in Alberta and transports crude oil to a terminal in Wisconsin. Enbridge is replacing the aging pipeline that was built in the 1960s. Construction on the 337-mile segment that crosses Minnesota began in December. Opponents say the pipeline violates Indigenous treaty rights, risks the chance of an oil spill, and deepens reliance on fossil fuels. So far, the courts have sided with Enbridge. Last week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals denied a request from the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and White Earth Band of Ojibwe to shut down construction.
This week Circle of Blue reports on water affordability in Massachusetts.
Amid rising municipal water rates and a pandemic that is worsening inequality, a U.S. civil rights advisory committee report argues that Massachusetts should adopt new policies and standards that ensure affordable drinking water access for all.
“Water access should be part of what people look at when they look at civil rights,” said Martha Davis, a Northeastern University law professor who served on the advisory committee.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was established by Congress in 1957 to investigate claims of discrimination, assess the equity of laws, and submit recommendations to policymakers. Advisory committees in each state and the District of Columbia act as the commission’s sentries, highlighting emerging issues and issuing reports on important and timely matters.
The Massachusetts Advisory Committee is the first state committee to issue a report on water access and affordability. The commission welcomed the findings, according to Angelia Rorison, its communications director.
“Through original research and hearings conducted by the Committee the report’s recommendations provide a roadmap for getting ahead of this impending crisis in water access, before more lives are shattered by the inability to afford this fundamental human right and basic necessity,” Rorison wrote in an email to Circle of Blue.
The committee’s report presented eight recommendations to the commission.
Three of the recommendations seek to level the playing field for renters, who do not enjoy the same access to water-bill discounts as homeowners. The committee suggests that renters, who generally do not directly pay the water bill, be eligible for subsidies to offset the cost of water. The committee also argues that renters should be able to halt the disconnection of water service if their landlord failed to pay the bill.
Davis told Circle of Blue that renters were a particular concern for the committee. In Massachusetts, a third of white households do not own the home they live in. But 73 percent of Hispanic households and 65 percent of Black households are renters. Because of these structural inequalities, water-discount policies that privilege homeowners have disproportionate benefits for white households.
Massachusetts has had a statewide assistance program for water and sewer bills in place since the 1990s. But the program was last funded in 2003.
On the regulatory side, the committee recommended that state regulators employ a firmer hand over the operations of municipal water utilities, extending some of the same requirements that apply to investor-owned gas, electric, and water utilities. That includes review of rate increases and establishing programs to forgive customer debt.
The committee also suggested that utilities be required to gather data on the demographic characteristics of households where water is disconnected or that have liens are placed on the account for unpaid bills. Because little of this demographic data is collected, it is difficult to understand the scope of the problem and whether there is racial bias in the use of shutoffs or access to payment plans, Davis said.
“We just don’t know who is getting shut off, who is getting discounts, and who is on a payment plan,” said Davis, who noted the committee’s surprise at the lack of data.
Lastly, the committee recommends that the state subsidize the installation of water-conserving toilets and the repair of leaking pipes, both actions that would reduce water use and lower household bills.
Davis said that other state civil rights advisory committees are interested in water affordability. She hopes that the report will influence committee members in states like Maryland that are considering taking up the topic.
In the meantime, the Massachusetts committee members are distributing the report to state and local officials.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.