As infrastructure money flows, wastewater improvement is key

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

A yellowed PVC pipe juts out from the ground 30 feet behind her modest, well-maintained home, spewing raw sewage whenever someone flushes the toilet or runs the washing machine. It was the so-called “straight pipe” – a crude, unsanitary and notorious homemade sewage system used by thousands of poor people in rural Alabama, most of them black, those who can’t afford a basic septic tank will operate in an area that is heavily soiled.

“I have never seen anything like it. It was like living in a country house, and I could never get used to it,” said Lee Thomas, Rudolph’s boyfriend, who moved in with her three years ago from Cleveland.

Rudolph, 60, said: “I’ve lived with it my whole life.

If any region of the country sees transformative benefits from the $1 trillion infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law in November, it’s Alabama’s Black Belt. named for the humus land that once turned it into a cotton production center for slave labor. It is a large swath of 17 counties stretching from Georgia to Mississippi, where Blacks make up three-quarters of the population.

About $55 billion of the infrastructure bill’s total funding is earmarked to upgrade drinking, wastewater and stormwater treatment systems around the country, including $25 billion to replace systems Broken drinking water in cities like Flint, Mich. And Jackson, Miss.

Pay less attention to the other end of the pipe: 11.7 billion dollars in new funding to upgrade the city’s sewer and sewer systems, septic tanks, and centralized systems for small communities. It’s a cash flow that can transform the quality of life and economic prospects for poor communities in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Illinois, Michigan and many tribal areas.

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

But while the funding has the potential to lead to significant improvements, there is no guarantee it will deliver the promised benefits to communities that lack the political power or tax base to use even a small number of employees are needed to fill out an application for federal aid.

“I am very worried,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, a MacArthur colleague The book “Waste” in 2020 highlights the sanitation crisis in Lowndes County. “Without federal intervention, we would never have had the right to vote. Without federal intervention, we would never have had sanitation equity.”

Mark A. Elliott is a professor of engineering at the University of Alabama who works with an academic consortium that is designing a waste system optimized for the region’s dense clay soils. He said he was concerned that wealthier parts of the state could siphon off federal aid for the poor.

“My hope is that at least 50 per cent of this money goes to those most in need, not to help subsidize the water bills of affluent communities,” Mr. Elliott said. “Hygiene is a human right and these people need help.”

Straight pipes are just one of the causes of an increasingly widespread problem of old septic tanks, inadequate stormwater drainage and poorly maintained urban systems that regularly flood lawns with water. The waste has a bad smell after a light rain.

The infrastructure package targets funding for “difficult” areas like Hayneville and surrounding towns, part of the Biden administration’s goal to reduce structural racism. However, the infrastructure package give the states broad latitude in how to allocate fundsand it doesn’t have a new enforcement mechanism when the funds are exhausted.

Wastewater assistance funding is channeling through an existing federal-state loan program that typically requires partial or full repayment, but under the new law, local governments with a negligible tax base will do not have to pay back what they borrowed. As an additional draw, Congress cut the state’s required contribution from 20 percent to 10 percent.

Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat of Illinois, said: “Many people know that the bill is not just about drinking water, but the sewage part is just as important.” Cahokia Heights and Cairo, upgrading broken sewer systems that flooded residential areas with raw sewage.

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

Biden administration officials believe the scale of the new spending – representing a tripling of clean water funding over the next five years – will be enough to ensure poor communities are given their fair share.

“We want to change the way the EPA and states work together to ensure overwhelmed communities have access to resources,” said Zachary Schafer, an official with the agency that oversees program implementation. this.

But there are still big questions – including whether individual homeowners without access to the municipal system can tap the money to pay for expensive septic systems – and how will the guidelines work. does not come into force until the end of 2022.

While revolving loan funds are generally considered a successful program, a study last year by the Center for Environmental Policy Innovation and the University of Michigan found that many states have less likely to tap revolving loan funds represent poor communities with larger minority populations.

Alabama’s revolving loan fund has funded a number of projects in this part of the state in recent years, in addition to a major sewage system upgrade in Selma, according to the program’s annual report.

The water supply likely won’t be allotted in Alabama until later this year. The Republican-controlled state legislature is still negotiating with Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, about what to do with the tens of millions of dollars allocated through the 1.9 thousand stimulus package. billion dollars that Mr. Biden signed in March.

Every member of the state legislature is gearing up for re-election next year, and lawmakers from the larger, more powerful communities in Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile, eager to address voters, have begun start preparing their application.

The state government has done little to tackle the problem on its own over the years. In November, the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, invoking the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opened an investigation accused Alabama of discriminating against Black residents of Lowndes County by giving them “reduced access to adequate sanitation.”

One of the most significant recent attempts to tackle the problem came not from an official state initiative, but from the work of a top official in the state health ministry. Sherry Bradley created a demonstration project to install more than 100 modern septic systems in the Lowndes after raising $2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and raising $400,000 from the state.

Other projects, including the improvement of the town of White Hall in the Lowndes, were also undertaken once, disconnected from any larger plans to systematically address the problem.

Biden administration officials said the infrastructure bill would change that dynamic. Efforts to create a more inclusive approach are underway, albeit slowly. Representative Terri A. Sewell, an Alabama Democrat representing a Black majority district, began contacting local officials to compile a list of priority projects.

For his part, Mr. Elliott, a professor of engineering, is particularly interested in the village of Yellow Bluff, which is dotted with 67 trailers, shacks and vast trash-can houses under the smokestacks of a paper mill. large in Wilcox County. Most houses in the village use a straight pipe that empties into the creeks, and Mr. Elliott believes Yellow Bluff can benefit greatly from installing a small, clustered septic system.

Despite such harbingers of progress, locals and activists are tired of escorting reporters and academics on what they call “poverty tours”.

Flowers, for her part, is uncertain that anything approved by the state will be competently implemented, so she is urging officials and other community leaders to demand family guarantees. term for any wastewater and stormwater projects.

“I think living with this situation has a profound psychological effect on the people here,” she said. “It makes them feel left out, undervalued, like they’re failing.”

Miss Rudolph, who lives just outside Hayneville in the tiny town of Tyler, is one of the few people willing to talk about their straight pipe systems, even though they are ubiquitous.

Walking down the hill, Ms. Rudolph said it was important for people to see how hard she worked to keep the pipes clean and unclogged. She also wanted outsiders to understand the bitter hardship of all.

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

Sound made by Adrienne Hurst. As infrastructure money flows, wastewater improvement is key

Fry Electronics Team

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