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Putting the 2016 spotlight on water, 'environmental justice'

It may not be a recognized issue like the economy and national security, but Clinton suspects "environmental justice" is something voters will care about.
Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a \"get out the vote\" event at Nashua Community College on Feb. 2, 2016 in Nashua, N.H. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty)
Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a \"get out the vote\" event at Nashua Community College on Feb. 2, 2016 in Nashua, N.H.
They're sometimes called "sleeper issues." Most Americans can easily name the key issues that define major elections -- the economy, foreign policy, national security, et al -- but occasionally an issue just outside the spotlight will make its way onto the agenda, connecting with voters in surprising ways.
And while 2016 is still getting underway, Hillary Clinton is pushing just such an issue: water.
For example, to her credit, the Democratic candidate recognized the importance of the crisis in Flint, Michigan, before other candidates -- and even many news organizations -- took note of the story. Yesterday, Clinton added Jackson, Mississippi, to her focus, as the Clarion Ledger reported (thanks to my colleague Laura Conaway for the heads-up).

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said Tuesday she's concerned about lead levels in Jackson's water and called for national infrastructure improvements. [...] State health officials notified officials in Jackson on Thursday that 22% of water samples taken from city residents' homes in June contained excessive lead levels. City officials notified residents Thursday and Friday.

"I'm heartened that Jackson city officials are taking the right steps to fix the problem, including repeated testing and openness with the results, so families can stay informed,'' Clinton said in a statement. "As the emergency in Flint, Michigan, has made clear, cities and states must treat these situations with the utmost seriousness and do everything in their power to ensure that families -- especially children -- have access to safe, clean drinking water. We as a nation must make urgent investments to modernize our utilities and infrastructure, to keep families and communities safe and healthy."
Clinton has even introduced a new phrase into the lexicon: "environmental justice."
In fact, the former Secretary of State wrote an op-ed for MSNBC this past weekend, making the case, "There are a lot more Flints out there -- overwhelmingly low-income communities of color where pollution, toxic chemicals and staggering neglect adds to families' burdens."

Environmental justice can't just be a slogan -- it has to be a central goal. Cities are full of lead paint in low-income housing, lead embedded in the very soil from the days of leaded gasoline. Already, African-American children are twice as likely to suffer from asthma as white children -- and climate change will put vulnerable populations at even greater risk. [...] [A]s president, I will make environmental justice a central part of my comprehensive commitment to low-income communities of color -- by pursuing cleaner transportation; ambitious steps to reduce air pollution; dedicated efforts to clean up toxic sites; more resources for lead remediation; and greener, more resilient infrastructure. Because clean air and clean water are basic human rights -- and our rights shouldn't change between ZIP codes.

This may not seem like a hot-button political issue along the lines of gun violence or immigration, but it's hard to even imagine a more important issue than Americans' access to clean air and water, and Clinton suspects "environmental justice" is something voters will care about at a fundamental level.
That this push is coming against a backdrop of Republican candidates denying climate science and vowing to gut the EPA only helps heighten the election-year contrasts.