As money flows through infrastructure, improving wastewater is essential

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

A stained PVC pipe sticks out of the ground 30 feet behind his modest, well-maintained home, spewing raw sewage every time someone flushes the toilet or runs the washing machine. It’s called a “straight pipe” – a rudimentary, unsanitary, and notorious home sewer system used by thousands of poor people in rural Alabama, most of them black, who don’t cannot afford a basic septic tank that will work in the dense areas of the region. ground.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a bit like living with an addiction, and I can 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 all my life,” said Ms Rudolph, 60.

If there’s one part of the country that stands to see the transformational benefits of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Biden signed into law in November, it’s Alabama’s black belt, named after the soil. loam that once made it a center of cotton production by slaves. It’s a stretch of 17 counties stretching from Georgia to Mississippi where blacks make up three quarters of the population.

About $55 billion of the infrastructure act’s overall funding is dedicated to upgrading systems across the country that treat drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater, including $25 billion to replace existing water systems. failing drinking water in cities like Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Miss.

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

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 get it right, if we can do it,” said Helenor Bell, the former mayor. of Hayneville in Lowndes County, who runs the town’s funeral home.

But while the funding is likely to lead to substantial improvements, there’s no guarantee it will deliver the promised benefits to communities that don’t have the political power or tax base to employ even the few staff needed to fill out applications. federal aid.

“I’m very concerned,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, a MacArthur Fellow whose 2020 book “Waste” shed light on the sanitation crisis in Lowndes County. “Without federal intervention, we would never have had the right to vote. Without federal intervention, we will never have sanitation equity.

Mark A. Elliott is a professor of engineering at the University of Alabama and works with a university consortium designing a waste management system optimized for the region’s dense clay soil. He said he fears wealthier parts of the state will siphon off federal aid intended for the poor.

“I hope that at least 50% 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 element of a more widespread breakdown of outdated septic tanks, inadequate storm sewers, and poorly maintained municipal systems that routinely leave lawns covered in smelly sewage even after a light downpour.

The infrastructure package targets funding toward “disadvantaged” areas like Hayneville and surrounding towns, as part of the Biden administration’s goal to address structural racism. Yet the infrastructure package gives states wide latitude in how to allocate funding, and it contains no new enforcement mechanisms once the money is out.

Funding for wastewater comes through an existing loan program between the federal government and the state that typically requires partial or full repayment, but under the new legislation, local governments with negligible tax bases will not have not to repay what they borrow. As an added 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 Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, who helped draft the bills. provisions after helping two small towns in his state, Cahokia Heights and Cairo, upgrade failing sewage systems that flooded 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.

Biden administration officials are confident that the scale of the new spending — which represents a three-fold increase in funding for clean water over the next five years — will be enough to ensure poor communities get their fair share.

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

But major questions remain – including whether individual homeowners without access to municipal systems can dip into the cash to pay for expensive septic systems – and guidance won’t be ready until late 2022.

Although the revolving loan fund is generally considered a successful program, a study last year by the Environmental Policy Innovation Center and the University of Michigan found that many states were less likely to tap into revolving loan funds on behalf of poor communities with larger minority populations.

According to the program’s annual reports, the Alabama Revolving Loan Fund has financed few projects in this part of the state in recent years, with the exception of a major sewer system upgrade in Selma. .

Water funding likely won’t be distributed in Alabama until later this 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 up for re-election next year, and lawmakers from the larger and more powerful communities of Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile, eager to deliver to voters, have already begun preparing their nominations.

The state government has done little to address 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 accused that Alabama had discriminated against black residents of Lowndes County by offering them “reduced access to adequate sanitation facilities.”

One of the most significant recent efforts to address the problem came not from an official 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 tinkering with $2 million from the US Department of Agriculture and ripping off $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, Biden administration officials said. Efforts to create a more holistic approach are underway, albeit slowly. Rep. Terri A. Sewell, a Democrat from Alabama who represents a majority-black district, began reaching out to local officials to compile a list of projects to prioritize.

For his part, Mr. Elliott, the professor of engineering, is particularly interested in the hamlet of Yellow Bluff, a scattering of 67 double-wide trailers, cabins and cinderblock houses under the chimneys of a huge Wilcox County paper mill. . Most houses in the hamlet use straight pipes discharging into streams, and Mr Elliott thinks Yellow Bluff could benefit greatly from the installation of a small grouped septic tank.

Despite these harbingers of progress, there is a deep-rooted 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, isn’t sure that anything approved by the state will be performed competently, so she’s pushing officials and other community leaders to demand extended warranties on all wastewater projects and rainwater.

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

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

Walking down the hill, Ms Rudolph said it was important people saw how hard she worked to keep the pipe clean and unobstructed. She also wanted outsiders to understand the bitter hardships of it all.

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

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