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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Brownfields Guides and
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
Organization(s): U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Chapter 8: Rural Water Supplies and
Describes threats to rural water quality and strategies to maintain the safety of private water sources and
Citation: Healthy Housing Reference Manual
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
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
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
Environmental Justice: Healthy Environments, Shared Decision-Making, and Sustainable Communities
Describes the relevance of the environmental justice movement to rural communities. Suggests potential
environmental justice goals that could benefit rural communities, particularly those who have been historically
affected by environmental exposures.
Organization(s): National Rural Assembly
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
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