Drop in the bucket: US infrastructure plan may fall short on water

New York (AFP) –


Out of sight, out of mind: Problems with decades-old pipes and sewers across American cities and towns are largely hidden and tend to be neglected for years before exploding into public crisis.

Last month, the Clarksburg Water Board in West Virginia announced that children from three homes were diagnosed with high lead levels, prompting the municipal authority to immediately replace pipes and launch a testing program throughout the system.

"I don't think they know the magnitude of the problem," said James Griffin of the West Virginia Black Heritage Festival, who organized a community meeting earlier this week with water officials.

"There's just a whole lot of not knowing."

The latest local water crisis surfaced as the Senate moves closer to passing the $1.2 trillion bipartisan package to address neglected maintenance on traditional infrastructure, as well as spending on clean energy and broadband internet.

Environmentalists have welcomed the bill, but say funding for water projects falls far short given the scale of the problem.

They are holding out hope that further funding will be provided in the $3.5 trillion budget package backed by President Joe Biden, which could be enacted later this year, despite Republican opposition.

"It's a start," Tracy Brown, regional director for water protection at Save the Sound, said of the Senate bill.

- An 'overwhelmed' system -

Brown's group, which focuses on the Long Island Sound and other waterways in the states of New York and Connecticut, has been pressing local officials to address wastewater problems that regularly force local beaches to close after heavy rains.

Environmentalists say funding for water projects in the Senate infrastructure bill falls far short given the scale of the problem
Environmentalists say funding for water projects in the Senate infrastructure bill falls far short given the scale of the problem Nicholas KAMM AFP/File

Her group documented 164 raw sewage spills in Westchester County in suburban New York between 2010 and 2019, blaming shrinking federal support compared with the 1970s, when much of the network was built.

"The bursts are caused by breakdowns in aging and poorly maintained pipes and pumps that crack or fail," according to a November 2020 report.

The worst incidents are in the majority-Black city of Mount Vernon, New York, less than 20 miles from Manhattan, where residents sometimes need to collect their own waste and empty it in a manhole.

One woman told a local news show that her grandchildren call her home "the poop house."

Catherine Coleman Flowers, a member of a White House environmental justice council, visited some of the homes last month and likened the decrepit network has created "third-world sanitation conditions."

The city, which has been sued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency over the sewage problems, estimated a fix could cost more than $100 million.

"It's underground," Brown said "People want to invest in things they can see, like roads and bridges and police officers."

- Old homes -

In West Virginia, the Clarksburg Water Board has tested 228 homes and found six instances of elevated lead levels, general manager Jason Myers said, adding that the board plans to test all 8,500 taps in its network.

The board replaced lead service lines -- which run from the street to the houses -- and provided bottled water to more than 500 homes with pipes suspected of containing lead.

The National Guard has been enlisted to help distribute water as well.

"We may be the first in West Virginia with this problem, but we won't be the last," said Myers, who is enlisting the state's congressional delegation to win funding for a project that could cost more than $6 million.

There also could be lead in the pipes inside the houses in Clarksburg, most of which were built decades ago before experts knew that exposure to lead harmed brain and organ development in children.

"I suspect it may be fairly widespread," said Michael McCawley, a professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, who said the contamination likely stems from the interaction between old pipes and water that is "a little too acidic."

"Infrastructure is a an ongoing cost," he said. "It is essential to have a national program, because if you leave it to the local government they will not have the tax base to maintain the infrastructure."

The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that addressing the lead problem nationwide will cost $45 billion. But the Senate bill includes only $15 billion for this purpose.

"It's a step in the right direction, but we need a lot more," said Becky Hammer, NRDC's deputy director on federal water policy.