William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


Over the past four decades, nine million Americans have ingested dangerous drinking water from a trusted source: their own taps. Each year, “an estimated 16.4 million cases of acute gastroenteritis” are linked to public drinking water. For many Americans, drinking water—perhaps the most important cornerstone of human health—has become cause for concern.

In Flint, Michigan, this concern turned to panic. In 2014, after toddlers began developing painful skin conditions, children fell seriously ill, and tap water emerged in the form of thick, orange-brown sludge, the people of Flint began to wonder: is there something in the water? What soon became known as the Flint Water Crisis drew new attention to the pitfalls of water system mismanagement. More recently, Newark, New Jersey, has endured its own water crisis, with levels of lead in the city’s drinking water among “the highest recently recorded by a large water system in the United States.” As in Flint, the response of Newark city authorities has only compounded the problem, with some residents drinking the tainted water for twenty-one months before receiving a water filter.

Water issues in places like Flint and Newark have drawn deserved media attention and sparked a discussion of health, equity, and access in America’s cities. Missing from this discussion about America’s water management, however, are the nearly twenty percent of Americans that live in rural areas. In real numbers, this translates to roughly 60 million people who, like most other Americans, depend on public water supplies for survival.

While Flint, Newark, and other big-city water crises may have justifiably increased awareness, the reality is stark: drinking water problems disproportionately affect rural areas over urban or suburban areas. Furthermore, research shows that within these disproportionately affected rural areas, it is specifically low-income communities which suffer from the greatest risk of ingesting unsafe water. The designation of “low-income, rural area” includes millions of people, making the problem of clean drinking water in these areas a profoundly impactful one.

Through an analysis of ongoing drinking water issues in the rural community of Denmark, South Carolina, this Note presents a discussion of the hurdles America’s low-income, rural communities face in the fight for clean drinking water. Part I of this Note places Denmark and its water issues in context. Part II provides an overview of specifically low-income, rural challenges, arguing that a combination of ineffective enforcement under the Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”) and inadequate responses to water issues have resulted in a uniquely rural water crisis nationwide. Part III documents these structural causes and responses to the water crisis in Denmark. Finally, Part IV advocates reforms to the SDWA and a strategy of community inclusion to secure clean water in Denmark and across rural America.