Op-Ed: Delaware River pollution should be a national concern

Call for clean water, justice and jobs in environmental justice communities like Camden, Chester, Philadelphia and Wilmington
Tim Dillingham (left), Andrew Kricun (center) and Don Baugh

Perhaps nowhere in the nation are the issues of environmental, social and economic inequities and injustice more evident than in a 27-mile stretch of the Delaware River valley bordered by the cities of Camden, Chester, Philadelphia and Wilmington.

Our country faces a series of challenges that have exposed long-standing vulnerabilities to the health of our environment, our communities and our democracy. In addition, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently graded our nation’s drinking water infrastructure a C- and its wastewater infrastructure a D+, which represents entirely inadequate protection of the public health and the environment.

And, unfortunately, a significantly disproportionate burden of this infrastructure inadequacy directly impacts environmental justice communities such as Camden, Chester, Philadelphia and Wilmington. We believe very strongly that everyone, regardless of where they live and what they look like, is entitled to safe drinking water and clean waterways. Yet, the 27-mile stretch of the Delaware River that flows past these cities is the only section of this 300-mile river not designated for direct water contact by government agencies. This is caused by chronic overflows from antiquated combined sewer systems which — during normal rain events — can push raw sewage into the streets, homes, parks and neighborhoods of these environmental justice cities, as well into the river. This is not only a public health and environmental problem, but also a social justice problem. No one, no matter where they live or what they look like, should have to worry about their basement backing up with sewage when it rains, or their children walking through puddles of sewage to get to their bus stops.

The Biden administration and Congress are currently developing a national infrastructure spending plan. It is on the order of billions, if not trillions, of dollars to be invested in finally upgrading our crumbling national infrastructure, mostly discussing roads, bridges and energy. The funding package must also consider and provide dollars for clean water, justice and jobs in overburdened communities — and several do. Federal investment in cleaning up the pollution of the Delaware River adjacent to Philadelphia, Chester, Wilmington and Camden should be a high and immediate priority. Such an investment, long overdue, can bring equitable improvements in the quality of life, remove some of the unjust pollution burdens facing riverfront communities, and spark economic development, jobs and business creation.

A national investment

A national investment is needed as these communities cannot, and should not have to, bear the costs of the needed improvements alone. These communities deserve to be able to enjoy the same quality of life as everyone else, without having to bear crippling rate increases. The adjacent Delaware River — an economic powerhouse for most communities — provides only promises of economic development and quality-of-life enhancement that others in different ZIP codes enjoy. Strong and innovative local leadership has demonstrated how addressing these problems, through green infrastructure parks in Camden and Philadelphia’s visionary “Green City, Clean Water” program, could work. These exemplary efforts need to be expanded, accelerated and implemented; doing so will improve community landscapes, provide jobs and bring the promise of the Delaware River to life. This vision cannot be achieved through local ratepayers alone. It is a model example of where the Biden administration and Congress should partner and direct the developing infrastructure funding program.

We are at a moment in history where we might truly achieve clean water, justice and jobs in addressing the water pollution burdens on our communities, supporting them in growth, jobs and improvements in community life. Local leaders need to call for attention and funding for these problems, direct some of the immediately available American Rescue Plan Act funding to ready projects and work with national leaders to build a strong and sustained commitment to cleaning up a significantly overburdened stretch of the Delaware River, America’s founding river.