White House Retrofits Infrastructure Bill to Better Help Poor Communities

The Biden administration is starting a new initiative this week to ensure that the poorest communities in the United States have access to billions in funding from the infrastructure bill to replace their crumbling wastewater, drinking water and storm water systems.

It represents a midcourse adjustment on the signature achievement of President Biden’s administration, with a goal of speeding up assistance to local governments that lack the staffing and know-how to apply for $55 billion in funding for water projects tucked into the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which passed in November.

On Tuesday, top officials with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agriculture Department 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, Ala., a 1960s civil rights battleground where more than half of residents lack access to functional septic or municipal wastewater systems. Hundreds of people, almost all of them Black, resort to using homemade “straight pipes,” which pump raw sewage into their yards, nearby creeks and the streets.

“In all my travels, the time I spent in Lowndes County was disheartening and frankly very hard to process,” said Michael S. Regan, the E.P.A. administrator, who has crisscrossed the country as part of the administration’s environmental justice initiative.

“This is an environment where children are playing in the same yard with raw sewage, homes where waste is backing up into people’s tubs and the very sinks where they wash their dishes,” added Mr. Regan, a former environmental official in North Carolina who is the first Black man to run the E.P.A. “These are really, really tough experiences.”

In a statement, Mr. Biden said, “This is the United States of America: No one should have raw sewage in their backyards or seeping into their homes.”

The administration will target its assistance to communities in seven states: Lowndes and Greene Counties in Alabama; Bolivar County, Mississippi; Doña Ana County and Santo Domingo Pueblo 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.

The initial funding for the effort is about $5 million. But Mitch Landrieu, a former mayor of New Orleans who oversees coordination of the infrastructure act for Mr. Biden, said the move was a significant shift that would give local officials greater access to a wide range of assistance.

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

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Starting this month, E.P.A. and Agriculture Department experts will begin to work directly with local officials to create needs assessments and project lists, draft the detailed proposals demanded by state governments and ensure that projects are executed 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 instructed his aides to make sure the issues were dealt with “right now,” Mr. Landrieu and Mr. Vilsack said.

“You can’t just send money out and hope that the states and the locals get 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 to assist these regions for years, said the initiative was welcome news but would not work long-term unless the White House remained engaged indefinitely.

“I think this is the beginning, and just a first step, not an end in itself,” said Catherine 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 is urging them to require that all new sanitation systems come with a 10-year money back warranty to ensure they do not fail in the harsh conditions.

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

If any part of the country stands to see transformational benefits from the infrastructure act, it is Alabama’s Black Belt, an expanse of 17 counties named for the loamy soil that once made it a center of slave-labor cotton production.

About $25 billion is allocated to replace failing drinking-water systems in cities like Flint, Mich., and Jackson, Miss., which garnered much of the attention paid to the water quality part of the bill. The measure also includes $11.7 billion in new funding to upgrade municipal sewer and drainage systems, septic tanks and clustered systems for small communities.

The main conduit for the money is an existing loan program retrofitted to allow communities to forgo repayment of their debt, turning the funding into a grant.

While the revolving loan fund is generally regarded as 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 revolving loan funds on behalf of poor communities with larger minority populations.

Alabama’s revolving loan fund has financed few projects in this part of the state in recent years, apart from a major wastewater system upgrade in Selma, according to the program’s annual reports.

The 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 into charges that Alabama had discriminated against Black residents in Lowndes County by offering them “diminished access to adequate sanitation.”

In the Black Belt, the destructive legacy of racism — slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow, malign neglect by white politicians — is as much a presence underfoot as the areas’s dense, coal-hard soil. The ground is inviting but unforgiving, ideal for raising cash crops yet too impenetrable to water flow to accommodate standard septic systems.

“When we think about the atrocities that we’ve seen throughout the Black Belt,” Mr. Regan said, his voice trailing off. “Let me just say this: All of these people are of a certain income and a certain race. We have to acknowledge that systemic racism still exists.”

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