Environmentalism Sacrifice Zones

What happens when there’s nothing left to drink?: A look into Pennsylvania’s water Crisis

Written by Lauren Ariel Hoffman

Lauren Ariel Hoffman is a Pennsylvania-based photojournalist. A senior at The New School graduating May 2021 with a BA in Journalism + Design, she covers longform and investigative pieces on public health and healthcare, Jewish identity and the environment, in addition to writing personal essays. She often covers strikes and protests regarding the environment and human rights: covering the Climate Strikes in 2019, and the many responses to the 2020 election. Her reporting puts emphasis on finding local voices and making equitable representation for her sources. Hoffman has had pieces featured in Good Morning America, Earther and Hey Alma, and hopes to continue her post-college reporting in her home state, focusing on the city of Philadelphia and her hometown, Phoenixville. Check out the rest of her work here:

When you grow up in Pennsylvania, dirt and decay are just a fact of life. Roadkill line the highways like mile markers, sewage plants touting rotten egg smell fill the already muggy summers, and abandoned iron, steel and gristmills break up the ever-rolling green farmlands. There’s a layer of grit to everything, but that’s part of what gives us that rustic charm we’re known for.

Unfortunately, this also applies to our drinking water. 

Pennsylvania is a state that is defined by its history of manufacturing exports: iron, steel, textiles, metals and chemicals. Cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were hubs for industrialization, with the latter being the main source of steel production for most of the United States throughout the majority of the 19th and 20th centuries. But by the turn of the century, emergence of manufacturing conglomerates, meant there was no longer use for our industry anymore. And while the farms still exist, many of the factories that helped build most of America were shut down, left to rust in a hilly field.

Carrying away and loading the pigs (pig iron), blast furnace, Pittsburg, Pa. | Library of Congress

Pennsylvania still makes iron and steel, but not nearly at the rate it used to. There are over 14,400 manufacturing establishments still active in the state, according to the Department of Community and Economic Development. Only now our manufacturing is dominated mainly by  pharmaceuticals. 

But that doesn’t mean the influence of the steel age is gone. The nostalgia for the olden days is alive and well, and its inside our pipes.

Abandoned facility of defunct Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company.
Abandoned facility of defunct Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company | stu_spivack

In 2016, an article on my hometown of Phoenixville (which is in eastern Pennsylvania) was released, stating that the water in our area had tested positive for Chromium-6: a contaminant so toxic it can cause cancer, reproductive problems and liver damage even from the tiniest exposure.

In 2019, another article on Phoenixville came out, detailing seven previously identified contaminants in our water that had risen significantly above the town’s recommended level. The highest contaminants, trihalomethanes, were 344 times the rate of the recommended amount. All seven of these contaminants have the ability to cause cancer.

The Wall Street Journal published an article in February 2020 about the Philadelphia suburbs where most of the residents don’t drink the tap water. It stated that 80,000 people across three townships lived in an area where the groundwater had been contaminated by a decommissioned military base

In the town of Aliquippa, Beaver County, the town’s system of cast-iron and lead pipes caused its residents to fall ill with boils, rashes, headaches, and other skin conditions, according to a September 2020 article.

The town has been protesting for better water treatment, though the board of their water municipality insists it is fine.

The issue is less about the impact of Pennsylvania’s industry, and more about a lack of governmental oversight and urgency. For one thing, there isn’t a federal legal limit for the more recent “forever chemicals”, dubbed PFAS (per-and-polyfluoroalkyl substances) by the Department of Environmental Protection. Because of this, states and nonprofit groups have taken it upon themselves to set their own limit, which wildly differs from region to region. In addition to this, the defunding of the Environmental Protection Agency under the now twice-impeached President has made it practically impossible for these departments to regulate clean water efficiently.

Pine Creek Gorge, Pennsylvania | NICHOLAS A. TONELLI/FLICKR
Pine Creek Gorge, Pennsylvania | NICHOLAS A. TONELLI/FLICKR

But do not abandon all hope, ye who enter Pennsylvania, because there is action being taken. In the past few years, citizen activism has proven to be more effective when it comes to handling environmental issues.

On March 27th, 2020, a labor and environmental coalition called Pittsburgh United partnered with the National Resources Defense Council and the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project to negotiate a settlement that resulted in the city of Pittsburgh agreeing to eliminate its lead pipes by 2026. In July, just four months after, the city reported the lowest lead levels in 158 homes in over 20 years, and this is in addition to a chemical additive that was added in April 2019.

While there are changes being made, the burden of clean water should not fall onto the residents in these areas. It is my hope that in the coming years there will be substantial environmental change, but I worry that the impact on those in my state who are falling ill will be irreversible if immediate action is not taken, if our concerns are not listened to, and if our right to clean water continues to be treated as an industrial commodity.