It was overshadowed among Donald Trump’s other outrageous claims in Thursday’s debate, but once again the president asserted that Americans enjoy the cleanest water in the world.
“We have done an incredible job environmentally, we have the cleanest air, the cleanest water, and the best carbon emission standards that we’ve seen in many, many years,” he said.
Trump habitually talks about water quality to steer environmental discussions away from his administration’s failure to contain large-scale carbon emissions and fight global climate change. Yet basic clean water and sanitation are inaccessible for 2 million Americans. The number includes 553,000 people who go unhoused in the world’s richest nation and 250,000 people in Puerto Rico, where existing inequities in access to clean water were exacerbated by Hurricane Maria, a disaster driven by climate change in which Trump’s administration mangled the federal response.
Lack of clean water is a problem older than the Trump administration. In Denmark, South Carolina, the water has not been drinkable since at least 2008. Residents in Flint, Michigan, have not had clean water since 2014. The water in Pittsburgh has been contaminated since 2016. Officials in Airway Heights, Washington, discovered PFAS, which can cause cancer, in their drinking water in 2017.
But Trump’s administration has rolled back more than 70 environmental protection rules—including allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to disregard the dangers of certain toxins. (A court found this to be illegal, but environmental watchdogs say the administration has not fully shifted course.) He has weakened rules that block companies from dumping waste in local waterways. The administration has proposed giving utility companies twice as much time to remove lead piping from systems highly contaminated with lead. And Trump’s EPA diminished a portion of the Clean Water Act, clearing the way for federal agencies to provide permits for projects that don’t adhere to local water-quality requirements.
While the president boasts of the purity of the country’s resources, these changes are effectively weakening a system that some communities found inadequate in the first place. A decrepit wastewater treatment system has left residents in Uniontown, Alabama, fighting for clean water for years while also combating the effects of a landfill contaminated with coal ash. And since the 1970s, residents of East Chicago, Indiana, have suffered in the shadow of a lead smelter and shouldered the effects of extensive soil and water pollution. Those who lived in the West Calumet housing project were particularly affected, since the complex sat on the smelter’s land. In 2016, federal and city officials forced the residents to move but provided them no means to relocate.
Often, contaminated water and soil is a combination of residential segregation and poverty, both of which are fueled by racist policy. A report from the U.S. Water Alliance found that race is the strongest indicator of whether someone will have access to clean water, a reality that Trump ignored in a subsequent question on why families affected by environmental racism and his rollbacks to protections should vote for him. Instead, he described families worried that living near oil refineries is damaging their physical health as being gainfully employed.
“The families that we’re talking about are employed heavily and they are making a lot of money, more money than they’ve ever made,” said Trump. “If you look at the kind of numbers that we’ve produced for Hispanic, for Black, for Asian—it’s nine times greater the percentage gain than it was under in three years, than it was under eight years of the two of them, to put it nicely, nine times more.”