New Biden administration initiative looks to fix water infrastructure problems in poor, rural areas


(CNN)The Biden administration on Tuesday launched an initiative that it hopes will help resolve wastewater issues in 11 poor, rural communities where inadequate disposal is a health risk to residents.

The Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap Community Initiative, launched under the US Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency, is set to be unveiled by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, EPA Administrator Michael Regan and White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu in Lowndes County, Alabama, one of 11 communities that are part of the initiative.

The majority-Black rural county is located between Selma and Montgomery in the “Black Belt” region. Many have residents in the county have long struggled with inadequate sewage disposal and wastewater. Septic systems and other wastewater systems are crucial for disease prevention and help remove bacteria, parasites and other viruses, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    “President Biden has been clear — we cannot leave any community behind as we rebuild America’s infrastructure with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” Landrieu said in a statement. “This includes rural and Tribal communities who for too long have felt forgotten.”

      Vilsack said the agency recognizes there are “people who have been going without the basics,” adding that “access to modern, reliable wastewater infrastructure is a necessity.”

        Regan echoed Vilsack and said opportunity for historically marginalized communities is “stolen when basic sanitation doesn’t work” when people are exposed to “backyard sewage and disease.”

        The initiative will aim to help “communities access financing and technical assistance to improve wastewater infrastructure to ‘close the gap’ with wealthier communities,” the USDA said in a release.

          The initiative will also allow both agencies to work with the communities, state government, tribal groups, and others to obtain financial and technical skills to tackling wastewater improvement. The communities and tribes will get additional support for wastewater issues by also getting help with wastewater solution plans and funding opportunities, according to both agencies.

          It says it will also allow both agencies that work with the 11 communities, state and Tribal partners, on-the-ground technical assistance providers, “to leverage technical and financial expertise to make progress” on tackling wastewater improvement. The communities and tribes will receive support to address wastewater issues through efforts that include creating wastewater community solution plans, wastewater assessments with technical engineering support, and pursing funding opportunities, according to both agencies.

          Other communities and tribes that part of the initiative include: Greene County, Alabama; Harlan County, Kentucky; Halifax and Duplin counties in North Carolina; Raleigh and McDowell counties in West Virginia; San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona; Doña Ana County and Santo Domino Pueblo in New Mexico; and Bolivar County in Mississippi.

          The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocates $55 billion to upgrade water infrastructure, including replacing lead service lines, and devotes funding to improving access to clean drinking water, wastewater and stormwater.

          The law also allocates $11.7 billion in loans and grants through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to address wastewater infrastructure challenges. The initiative is going to allow communities the opportunity to receive these funds, both agencies said.

          In places like Lowndes County, where the median income was nearly $34,000, according to the latest US Census Bureau data, many residents have faced sewage flooding their yards and homes for decades. In parts of the county without access to a sewer system, some residents rely on private septic tanks if they can afford it and get assistance from organizations such as the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program (BBUWP), which helps low-income families that can’t afford a wastewater disposal system.

          Residents also resort to homemade wastewater disposal systems, such as a straight-piping from the toilet to the ground, Sherry Bradley, the director of Bureau of Environmental Services for the Alabama Department of Public Health, told CNN. Bradley, the environmental adviser for the BBUWP, said the non-profit organization can help install the septic systems at homes because of a USDA grant and 175-200 homes can get installations through the group, according to the group’s website.

          But funding is not enough to resolve wastewater issues and it is “just fixing a problem temporarily,” Bradley said.

            “It must be the right person to install these systems that know what they’re doing, that’s one reason I decided to step out of my regulatory role and help install onsite systems,” she said, adding that her division regulates the permitting, installation, maintenance and use of onsite sewage treatment systems. “I’ve seen a lot of onsite failures because someone’s brother or neighbor installed a system. Constant training of the homeowner is also needed.”

            In November, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into whether the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Lowndes County Health Department have put Black residents at a higher risk of disease by failing to properly rid their communities of raw sewage. The investigation in Lowndes County was the first environmental justice investigation the DOJ has conducted under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits recipients of federal funding from engaging in discrimination.