As infrastructure money flows, wastewater improvements are essential

HAYNEVILLE, Alabama – What’s babbling behind Marilyn Rudolph’s house in the rural countryside isn’t a stream. A stained PVC pipe protru...

HAYNEVILLE, Alabama – What’s babbling behind Marilyn Rudolph’s house in the rural countryside isn’t a stream.

A stained PVC pipe protrudes from the ground 30 feet behind his modest, well-maintained home, spitting out raw sewage every time someone flushes the toilet or operates the washing machine. It’s called a “straight pipe” – a rudimentary, unsanitary and notorious homemade sewage system used by thousands of poor people in rural Alabama, most of them black, who can’t get by. allow a basic septic tank that will work in the dense soil area.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s kind of like living with an addiction, and I’ll never, ever get used to it, ”said Ms. Rudolph’s boyfriend, Lee Thomas, who moved in with her three years ago from Cleveland.

“I’ve lived with this my whole life,” said Ms. Rudolph, 60.

If any part of the country can reap the transformational benefits of the $ 1 trillion infrastructure law that President Biden signed in November, it is Alabama’s black belt, named for the silty soil. once made a center of slave cotton production. It is an expanse of 17 counties stretching from Georgia to Mississippi where blacks make up three-quarters of the population.

About $ 55 billion of overall infrastructure law funding is spent on upgrading systems across the country that treat drinking water, wastewater and stormwater, including $ 25 billion to replace water systems. drinking water in cities like Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi.

Less attention has been paid to the other end of the pipe: $ 11.7 billion in new funds to upgrade municipal sewer and drainage systems, septic tanks and bundled systems for small communities. It’s a torrent of money that could transform the quality of life and economic prospects of poor communities in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Illinois, Michigan and many tribal regions.

In this part of Alabama, the center of the civil rights struggle 60 years ago, the funding represents “a once-in-a-lifetime chance to finally make things right, if we are successful,” said former Helenor Bell. mayor. de Hayneville in County Lowndes, who runs the town’s funeral home.

But while the funding is likely to lead to substantial improvements, there can be no assurance that it will deliver the promised benefits to communities that lack the political power or the tax base to employ even the few staff needed to fulfill the demands. federal aid.

“I am very concerned,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, a MacArthur member whose 2020 book “Waste” highlighted the health crisis in Lowndes County. “Without federal intervention, we would never have had the right to vote. Without federal intervention, we will never have equity in sanitation.

Mark A. Elliott is an engineering professor at the University of Alabama and works with an academic consortium that is designing a waste management system optimized for the area’s dense clay soil. He said he was concerned that richer parts of the state would embezzle federal aid intended for the poor.

“My hope is that at least 50 percent of this money will go to the people who need it most, and not to help subsidize the water bills of wealthy communities,” Mr. Elliott said. “Sanitation is a human right and these people need help. “

Straight pipes are just one part of a more common failure of dilapidated septic tanks, inadequate storm sewers and poorly maintained municipal systems that routinely leave lawns covered in foul-smelling sewage even after a mild thunderstorm.

The infrastructure package targets funding to “disadvantaged” areas like Hayneville and surrounding towns, as part of the Biden administration’s goal of addressing structural racism. However, the infrastructure package gives states wide latitude in how to allocate funds, and it doesn’t contain any new execution mechanism once the money is out.

Funding for wastewater goes through an existing federal-state loan program that typically requires partial or full repayment, but under the new legislation local governments with negligible tax bases will not have to repay what they want. borrow. As an additional incentive, Congress reduced the required state contribution from 20% to 10%.

“A lot of people know that the bill is not just about drinking water, but the wastewater part is just as important,” said Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, who helped draft the arrangements after helping two small towns in his state, Cahokia Heights and Cairo, are upgrading failing sewage systems that were flooding neighborhoods with raw sewage.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the program, said in November that the first tranche of funding for drinking water and sanitation projects, $ 7.4 billion, would be sent to states in 2022, of which about $ 137 million. dollars for Alabama.

Officials in the Biden administration are confident that the scale of the new spending – which represents a tripling of funding for drinking water over the next five years – will be enough to ensure that poor communities receive their fair share.

“We want to change the way EPA and states work together to ensure overburdened communities have access to these resources,” said Zachary Schafer, an agency official overseeing the program’s implementation.

But major questions remain – especially whether individual homeowners without access to municipal systems can dip into the money to pay for expensive septic systems – and the guidelines will not be ready until the end of 2022.

While the revolving credit fund is generally viewed as an effective program, a study last year by the Environmental Policy Innovation Center and the University of Michigan found that many states were less likely to use revolving loan funds on behalf of poor communities with larger minority populations.

The Alabama Revolving Credit Fund has funded few projects in this part of the state in recent years except for a major sanitation system upgrade in Selma, according to the program’s annual reports. .

Water funding is unlikely to be split in Alabama until the end of the year. The Republican-controlled state legislature is still negotiating with Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, over what to do with the tens of millions of dollars allocated under the $ 1.9 trillion stimulus package that Mr Biden signed in March.

Every member of the state legislature is set for re-election next year, and lawmakers from the larger and more powerful communities of Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile, keen to deliver to voters, have already started preparing their nominations.

The state government has done little to solve the problem on its own over the years. In November, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, citing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opened an investigation in charges that Alabama discriminated against black residents of Lowndes County by offering them “reduced access to adequate sanitation.”

One of the most significant recent efforts to address the problem has not come from a formal state initiative, but from the work of a senior state health department official. Sherry Bradley created a demonstration project to install more than 100 modern septic systems in Lowndes after raising $ 2 million from the US Department of Agriculture and wresting $ 400,000 from the state.

Other projects, including improvements in the town of White Hall in Lowndes, have also been ad hoc, disconnected from any larger plan to address the problem systemically.

The infrastructure bill is expected to change that dynamic, officials in the Biden administration said. Efforts to create a more holistic approach are underway, albeit slowly. Representative Terri A. Sewell, a Democrat from Alabama who represents a majority black district, began contacting local officials to put together a list of projects to prioritize.

For his part, Mr. Elliott, the engineering professor, is particularly interested in the hamlet of Yellow Bluff, a scattering of 67 double-width trailers, cabins and cinder-block houses under the chimneys of a huge paper mill in the Wilcox County. Most of the houses in the hamlet use straight pipes that flow into streams, and Mr Elliott believes Yellow Bluff could benefit greatly from installing a small, bundled septic tank.

Despite such early signs of progress, there is a deep-seated sense of skepticism, bordering on pessimism, among local residents and activists weary of escorting journalists and academics on what they call “tours.” of poverty ”.

Ms Flowers, for her part, is unsure whether anything state-approved will be executed competently, so she is pushing officials and other community leaders to demand extended warranties on all wastewater projects and rain.

“I think living with this situation has a profound psychological impact on the people here,” she said. “It makes them feel left out, sidelined, like it’s a failure on their part. ”

Ms Rudolph, who lives just outside of Hayneville in the small town of Tyler, was one of the few people willing to talk about their straight pipe system, despite being ubiquitous.

Coming down the hill, Ms Rudolph said it was important for people to see how hard she worked to keep the pipe clean and unclogged. She also wanted strangers to understand the bitter trial of it all.

“We can’t put toilet paper in the toilet like everyone else,” Ms. Rudolph said. “We have to put it in the trash. “

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Newsrust - US Top News: As infrastructure money flows, wastewater improvements are essential
As infrastructure money flows, wastewater improvements are essential
Newsrust - US Top News
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