Justice Fund Stories: Democracy in Action with Union de Vecinos

Water justice is beyond the science of contamination and clean up, it is about democracy.

For the members of Union de Vecinos, this truth has mobilized and empowered their struggle for clean, healthy water for the city of Maywood, a small, working-class community in southeast Los Angeles County. For years whenever residents and members of Union de Vecinos protested the dirty tap water, they were told that they needed to do more specific studies of the different chemicals in the water, follow protocols for sampling and look at the water reports. Community leaders were frustrated because knowing what was wrong with the water was not enough to solve the problem.

One day one of our leaders Rafael Castro said, “The problem with the water is not that it is dirty, but that we have no control of it. If it was our water company we’d start cleaning and we’d stop asking why it was so dirty. What we need to do is take control of the water company.”

That is when Union de Vecinos’ campaign changed from a campaign about science to a campaign about democracy.

The right to clean and safe drinking water is a fundamental human right. Recognizing this right is not just a battle to avoid drinking dangerous water, it is also a fight for justice.

The balance of power regarding water issues is changing in Maywood. The problem with the city’s water is that the people who make the decisions don’t drink the water, bathe in it, or cook with it. The mutual water companies are controlled by absentee landlords in a city that is 75% tenants. Despite resource laws and national media coverage of their water’s known toxic chemicals and their dangerous health effects, Maywood is still plagued by foul-smelling and tasting, brown tap water.)

Numerous tests on Maywood’s tap water, including by the CA Department of Public Health have found dangerously high levels of manganese, which can disrupt the nervous system and is linked to Parkinson’s disease. There is no health standard for manganese and therefore no legal incentive for companies to purge it from the water supply. Another chemical contained in Maywood’s water supply is trichloroethylene (TCE), a byproduct of industrial waste that is known to cause cancer and liver damage. In addition there are documented dangerous levels of lead, mercury, and di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalates, a manufactured chemical commonly added to plastics. The mile radius of Maywood is also afflicted by the nearby Pemaco Superfund site, a chemical plant that burned down in 1993, that left a legacy of toxic contaminants.

Public officials continue to claim that dirty brown tap water is merely an aesthetic issue, not a public health risk. But Maywood residents continue to pay double for their water: to the water companies and vendors, or for store-bought bottled water to drink.

For years Union de Vecinos partnering with Comité Cívico del Agua and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water have been working hard to organize and collaborate with community groups, local water boards, utilities commissions, state and local agencies to create a public water system in Maywood. Union de Vecinos is actively organizing trainings for the new water board, ongoing community forums, and outreach and support to residents.

This year they organized a meeting of water and land use experts in California to provide technical assistance to their Water Justice Committee to address several of the critical issues impacting the Water Companies, such as chemical filtration, cleaning up corroded infrastructure and financial resources. Leaders and advocates of Union de Vecinos are hopeful and excited so that they, the residents of Maywood, can begin to clean the water as soon as they control it.

Democratizing the water system will place the power over this precious resource directly into the hands of the residents, and guarantee the basic human right to have clean, healthy water for the future generations in Maywood.