The Biden administration is launching a new initiative this week to ensure the United States’ poorest communities have access to billions of dollars in funding from the infrastructure bill to replace crumbling sewer, drinking water and stormwater systems.
It represents an interim adjustment to a signature achievement of President Biden’s administration, aimed at expediting assistance to local governments that lack the staff and expertise to apply for $55 billion in funding for water projects included in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill dollars. which passed in November.
On Tuesday, top officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture unveiled a plan to provide technical assistance to 11 poor communities in the South, Appalachia and tribal areas.
The announcement took place in Lowndes County, Ala., a civil rights battleground in the 1960s, where more than half of residents lack access to functioning septic or municipal sewer systems. Hundreds of people, almost all black, are resorting to using makeshift “pipes,” which funnel raw sewage into their yards, nearby creeks, and streets.
“In all my travels, the time I spent in Lowndes County was heartbreaking and frankly very difficult to process,” said Michael S. Regan, the EPA administrator, who has crisscrossed the country as part of the administration’s initiative to environmental justice.
“It’s an environment where children play in the same yard as raw sewage, homes where trash is backed up into people’s bathtubs and into the sinks where they wash their dishes,” added Mr. Regan, a former North Carolina environmental official. he is the first black person to head the EPA “These are really, really difficult experiences.”
In a statement, Mr. Biden said: “This is the United States of America: No one should have raw sewage in their backyards or leaking into their homes.”
The administration will target its assistance to communities in seven states: Lowndes and Greene Counties in Alabama; Bolivar County in Mississippi? Doña Ana County and Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico. Duplin and Halifax Counties in North Carolina. Harlan County in Kentucky? McDowell and Raleigh Counties in West Virginia. and the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona.
Initial funding for the effort is approximately $5 million. But Mitch Landrieu, a former New Orleans mayor who is overseeing coordination of the infrastructure law for Mr. Biden, said the move was an important change that would give local officials greater access to a wide range of aid.
Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, said his ultimate goal was to eliminate the advantages some counties have in accessing a wide range of federal aid programs. “They have to learn how to play the game,” he said. “And they have to learn how to play the multi-level, multi-division game.”
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Starting this month, EPA and Department of Agriculture experts will begin working directly with local officials to create needs assessments and project lists, draft the detailed proposals requested by state governments, and ensure projects are carried out effectively.
The idea for the change, Mr. Landrieu said, came from Mr. Biden. In January, while on Air Force One, he read a New York Times article documenting the problems in Lowndes County. He then instructed his aides to make sure the issues were addressed “right now,” Mr. Landrieu and Mr. Vilsack said.
“You can’t just send money and hope that states and local people will come together,” Mr. Landrieu added. “It’s important to be on the ground to make sure.”
Environmental activists, who have urged federal officials to take a more active role in helping these areas for years, said the initiative was welcome but would not work in the long term unless the White House remained committed indefinitely.
“I think this is the beginning, and just a first step, not an end in itself,” said Kathryn Coleman Flowers, an Alabama native and MacArthur Fellow whose 2020 book “Waste” highlighted the sanitation crisis in Lowndes County.
Ms Flowers said she wanted to see Mr Biden’s team go further and urged them to require all new sanitary systems to come with a 10-year money-back guarantee to ensure they don’t fail in the harsh conditions.
“We need to have sustainable solutions to climate change,” Ms Flowers said. “But we also need to make sure that people down here have access to the same infrastructure as wealthy families.”
If any part of the country is seeing transformative benefits from the infrastructure law, it’s Alabama’s Black Belt, a 17-county stretch named for the loamy soil that once made it a cotton-growing center for slavery.
About $25 billion is set aside to replace troubled drinking water systems in cities like Flint, Mich., and Jackson, Miss., which have garnered much of the attention on the water quality portion of the bill. But the measure also includes 11.7 billion dollars in new funding to upgrade municipal sewer and drainage systems, septic tanks and cluster systems for small communities.
The main conduit for the money is an existing loan program that has been retrofitted to allow communities to waive their debt repayments by turning the funding into a grant.
While the revolving loan fund is generally seen as a successful program, a study last year by the Environmental Policy Innovation Center and the University of Michigan found that many states less likely to tap revolving loan funds on behalf of poor communities with larger minority populations.
Alabama’s revolving loan fund has financed few projects in that part of the state in recent years, except for a major sewer system upgrade in Selma, according to the program’s annual reports.
State government in Montgomery has done little to address the problems in Lowndes and its neighboring counties over the years. In November, the Justice Department’s civil rights division, citing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opened an investigation to charges that Alabama had discriminated against Black residents of Lowndes County by offering them “diminished access to adequate sanitation.”
In the Black Belt, the devastating legacy of racism—slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow, poor neglect by white politicians—is as much a presence underfoot as the dense, coal-hard soil of the regions. The soil is attractive but unforgiving, ideal for growing cash crops, but too impermeable to water flow to accommodate typical septic systems.
“When we think of the atrocities we’ve seen throughout the Black Belt,” Mr. Reagan said, his voice trailing off. “Let me just say this: All these people have a certain income and a certain race. We have to recognize that systemic racism still exists.”