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Rural Health Information Hub

Environmental Quality Models

Rural communities may face exposures to environmental hazards that pose risks to health and well-being. Many of these hazards arise from local industries and failing infrastructure. For example, groundwater may be contaminated with byproducts from industries like agriculture or mining or waste leakage from improperly maintained wastewater systems. This section describes approaches to improving air and water quality and revitalizing rural lands affected by environmental hazards.

Increasing Access to Clean and Safe Water

Rural communities experience challenges to accessing safe drinking water. In 1974, Congress enacted the Safe Drinking Water Act, which created regulations aimed at protecting and safeguarding public water systems. However, private water sources were exempt from the Act. As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate standards for private wells, which provide drinking water for 13 million American households. In many rural communities, homeowners are responsible for treating their drinking water to mitigate potential contaminants in the groundwater. However, many homeowners face barriers to maintaining safe water supplies, including inability to afford the cost of testing and treating water.

Approaches to improving rural water quality include:

  • Improving the capacity of rural residents and agencies to test and treat private water supplies.
  • Working with local industries to prevent runoff of contaminants into groundwater sources.
  • Replacing lead pipes or other sources of drinking water contamination in the home.
  • Repairing or maintaining septic systems.
  • Restoring wetlands or other natural features that act as filtering systems for pollutants in the water.

Improving Air Quality

In general, air quality is better in rural areas than in urban areas. However, pollutants such as fine particulate matter and ozone can be carried downwind of urban communities and affect the health of rural communities. For example, the largely rural San Joaquin Valley experiences some of the worst levels of air quality in the country due to its geographic configuration. Rural areas also lack infrastructure for monitoring air quality, which can create challenges for tracking ambient air pollution levels in rural communities.

Strategies to improve air quality in rural communities may involve investments in renewable energy sources that emit fewer air pollutants. For example, the Rural Energy for America Program funds investments in energy sources with small carbon footprints, such as wind energy and geothermal energy. Large-scale air quality projects may require state or regional partnerships to produce meaningful changes, as air pollution levels in urban areas influence rural air quality. Policies that decrease sources of air pollution in urban areas could have a larger impact on rural health outcomes than rural interventions alone.

Revitalizing Land and Mitigating Contaminants

Rural communities often face environmental hazards that arise from industrial or manufacturing activities. These sites can continue to release contaminants into the environment after they are abandoned or close operations. The term “brownfields” is used to describe former commercial sites whose future use is complicated by the real or perceived presence of contaminants or other hazards. Some brownfields are also Superfund sites, which are confirmed hazardous waste sites that pose serious threats to health and safety.

Cleaning and redeveloping brownfield sites provides multiple opportunities for rural communities to address social determinants of health (SDOH). Rural communities can use existing infrastructure to invest in new economic developments or convert the site to productive farmland. Rural communities have also used brownfield renovations as opportunities to offer job training in waste management, water quality monitoring, and emergency response.

Examples of Rural Environmental Quality Programs Addressing SDOH:

  • GrowingChange is reclaiming a brownfield site to promote equitable economic development in rural North Carolina. The organization is redeveloping the site, which formerly contained a decommissioned prison, into a sustainable farm. Through the farm, GrowingChange plans to provide valuable agricultural job training and education to youth and to improve local food systems.
  • The Cerro Gordo County Department of Public Health in rural Iowa implemented a project to address unsafe arsenic levels in local well water sources. The Department conducted extensive testing and determined the aquifer that was contributing to arsenic contamination. County officials created a communications campaign to warn residents about the effects of arsenic contamination and created recommendations for water testing and drilling. The County also enacted a policy that established the need for arsenic testing and required new wells to use a different aquifer source.
  • The Quitman Brownfields Coalition in rural Mississippi identified several brownfield sites for potential cleanup and redevelopment. The coalition focused on saving a primary care clinic that was built on a former gas station and faced challenges to maintaining operations after underground storage tanks began to leak. Another project funded an environmental site assessment to identify contamination concerns at a site with previous petroleum activities. After the site was approved for redevelopment, the coalition began developing a senior center at the former brownfield.
  • The Snow Creek Stream Environment Zone Restoration Project in Placer County, California undertook a series of cleanup activities to restore natural wetlands and maintain the water quality of Lake Tahoe. The project involved purchasing and redeveloping a former concrete plant that was contaminating local water sources. Placer County officials directed the construction of walking trails and recreational opportunities at the site of the former brownfield. Officials also made restorations to the natural habitat to help address the disturbances caused by the concrete plant.
  • The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services worked with partners to identify barriers that kept well owners from monitoring their water quality. The department developed an online tool to help well owners identify contaminants in their well water and make informed decisions about treatment options. The department also worked with municipalities to help establish standards for well water quality in their local building codes.

Implementation Considerations

Rural communities seeking to address environmental quality may need to consider the history and consequences of environmental health disparities. In the United States, people of color and low-income individuals have been disproportionately burdened by exposure to environmental pollution and hazards when compared to other populations. The environmental justice movement was created by grassroots activists to raise awareness about the way that environmental exposures were unequally distributed. Environmental justice calls for the equitable treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

Many rural communities take an environmental justice approach to projects that make changes to the physical or built environment, including those that address air quality, safe water access, and mitigation of contaminants. Strategies include integrating environmental justice principles into land use decisions and providing funds to help disproportionally-burdened communities address environmental health concerns.

The USDA offers a collection of environmental justice resources for rural communities, including screening tools to identify demographic and environmental indicators in the area of interest. Rural communities seeking to integrate environmental justice approaches may consider the following questions when implementing land use decisions:

  • How will the project or policy affect environmental exposures of the surrounding community?
  • What alternative approaches could avoid or minimize the negative effects of environmental exposures?
  • Who lives near the environmental exposure? Who will be affected? Are minority populations, low-income populations, or tribal communities more likely to be affected than other populations?
  • Do the affected populations have a history of unequal exposure to environmental hazards?
  • Are the affected populations involved in the decision-making or implementation process for the project? What kind of outreach strategies are needed to reach these populations?

Program Clearinghouse Examples

Resources to Learn More

Advancing Environmental Justice
Described the work of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in addressing environmental justice. Includes descriptions of many environmental justice projects in rural areas.
Organization(s): National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Division of Extramural Research and Training
Date: 7/2015

Brownfields Federal Programs Guide 2023
Provides a compendium of guides that describe every step of the brownfields redevelopment process, from site assessments to evaluation. Includes resources about funding, including the comprehensive federal programs guide.
Organization(s): U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment
Provides a comprehensive overview of the evidence that climate change is affecting health and well-being. Describes the impact of climate change on many SDOH, including air and water quality and food availability.
Organization(s): U.S. Global Change Research Program
Date: 4/2016

Publications That Support Private Water Well Safety
Lists resources that help agencies individuals maintain the safety of private well water.
Organization(s): U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Rural Water Quality Protection: A Planning & Zoning Guidebook for Local Officials
Provides comprehensive information about watersheds and best management practices for maintaining the quality of rural water sources.
Author(s): Warbach, J., Wyckoff, M., Jones, M., Soucy, R., & Spry, J.
Organization(s): Michigan State University
Date: 12/2012

Technical Guidance for Assessing Environmental Justice in Regulatory Analysis
Provides suggestions for measuring the impacts of environmental stressors on different populations. Includes best practices for evaluating potential environmental justice concerns.
Organization(s): U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Date: 6/2016