White House revamps infrastructure bill to better help poor communities

The Biden administration is launching a new initiative this week to ensure America’s poorest communities have access to billions of dollars in funding from the infrastructure bill to replace their wastewater systems, drinking water and rainwater in ruins.

It represents a mid-term adjustment to the signature of President Biden’s administration, with the aim of accelerating assistance to local governments that are understaffed and under-trained to apply for $55 billion in funding for water projects included in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which passed in November.

On Tuesday, senior officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture will unveil a plan to provide technical assistance to 11 impoverished communities in the South, Appalachia and tribal areas.

The announcement will take place in Lowndes County, Alabama, a 1960s civil rights battleground where more than half of residents lack access to functioning septic or municipal wastewater treatment systems. Hundreds of people, almost all black, rely on homemade “straight pipes,” which pump raw sewage into their yards, nearby streams and streets.

“In all of my travels, my time in Lowndes County has been daunting and frankly very difficult to manage,” said Michael S. Regan, the EPA administrator, who has criss-crossed the country in as part of the administration’s environmental justice initiative.

“It’s an environment where children play in the same yard with raw sewage, homes where waste is flowing back into people’s bathtubs and the very sinks where they do the dishes,” added Mr. Regan, a former North Carolina environmental official who is the first black man to lead the EPA “These are really, really tough experiments.”

In a statement, Mr Biden said: ‘This is the United States of America: No one should have raw sewage in their backyard or seeping into their home.’

The administration will target its assistance to communities in seven states: Lowndes and Greene counties in Alabama; Bolivar County, Mississippi; Doña Ana County and Pueblo of Santo Domingo in New Mexico; Duplin and Halifax counties in North Carolina; Harlan County, 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 oversees infrastructure law coordination for Mr Biden, said the move was an important change that would give local officials better access to a wide range of assistance. .

Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, said his ultimate goal is to eliminate the advantages that some counties receive when they have access to a wide range of federal aid programs. “They have to learn to play the game,” he said. “And they have to learn to play the game on multiple levels, with multiple departments.”

Beginning this month, EPA and Department of Agriculture experts will begin working directly with local authorities to create needs assessments and project lists, write the detailed proposals required by States and ensure that projects are carried out efficiently.

The idea for the change, Mr. Landrieu said, came from Mr. Biden. In January, while on Air Force One, he read an article in The New York Times documenting the problems in Lowndes County. He then asked his assistants to make sure the issues were dealt with “now”, Messrs. Landrieu and Vilsack.

“You can’t just send money and hope states and people come together,” Landrieu added. “It’s important to be on the pitch to make sure of that.”

Environmental activists, who have urged federal officials to take a more active role in helping those areas for years, said the initiative is welcome news but won’t work in the long run unless the White House stays engaged. indefinitely.

“I think this is the beginning, and just a first step, not an end in itself,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, a native of Alabama and MacArthur Fellow, whose 2020 book “Waste” highlighted. highlight the sanitation crisis in Lowndes County.

Ms Flowers said she wants to see Mr Biden’s team go further and urges them to require all new sanitation systems to come with a 10-year money back guarantee to ensure they do not fail in harsh conditions.

“We need to have sustainable solutions to climate change,” Ms Flowers said. “But we also need to make sure people here have access to the same infrastructure as wealthy families.”

If one part of the country is likely to see the transformational benefits of the Infrastructure Act, it’s Alabama’s Black Belt, a stretch of 17 counties named for the loamy soil that once made it a center of cotton production. by slaves.

About $25 billion is being allocated to replace failing drinking water systems in cities like Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Miss., which have attracted much of the attention to the water quality portion of the law Project. The measure also includes $11.7 billion new funds to upgrade municipal sewer and drainage systems, septic systems and consolidated systems for small communities.

The main channel for channeling the money is an existing loan program revamped to allow communities to waive debt repayments, turning the funding into a grant.

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. .

The Montgomery state government has done little to address the problems of Lowndes and its neighboring counties 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.”

In the Black Belt, the destructive legacy of racism – slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow, the malicious neglect of white politicians – is as much a presence underfoot as the region’s dense, hard soil. The terrain is inviting yet unforgiving, ideal for growing cash crops but too impenetrable to water flow to accommodate standard septic systems.

“When we think of the atrocities we’ve seen across the black belt,” Mr. Regan said, his voice trailing off. “Let me say this: all of these people are of a certain income and a certain race. We have to recognize that systemic racism still exists.

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