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Sewell introduces legislation to create new wastewater grants for underserved communities

Many communities in the Black Belt have severe wastewater issues.

Congresswoman Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, speaks on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives during a debate on impeaching President Donald Trump in January 2021. (VIA CSPAN)

Wednesday, U.S. Reps. Terri Sewell, D-AL07, and Brian Babin, R-Texas, introduced HR3745, the Decentralized Wastewater Grant Act of 2021. The bill would establish a grant program under the Clean Water Act, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to help low- and moderate-income households connect their homes to existing wastewater infrastructure or install or upgrade individually owned decentralized wastewater systems. Many communities in the Black Belt have severe wastewater issues due to the nature of the area’s gumbo like soil that does not perc. A normal septic tank system will not function properly there.

“Access to clean water and adequate wastewater infrastructure are basic human rights,” said Rep. Sewell. “For too many rural communities in my district and across the country, failing wastewater infrastructure has created serious health, economic, and environmental hazards.”

After its introduction Wednesday, HR3745 was included in a larger package, the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act, which passed out of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure the same day and will now make its way to the House Floor for a vote.

“The Decentralized Wastewater Grant Act will make it more affordable for families to connect their homes to existing wastewater systems or install quality septic systems of their own,” said Congresswoman Sewell. “I was proud to introduce this legislation and thrilled to see it pass this critical committee vote. This is one more step toward finally ending our country’s wastewater crisis.”

“While many Americans have access to municipal wastewater infrastructure, there are still millions of people across the nation who are responsible for their own sewage systems, which comes with a large price tag,” said Congressman Babin, the lead Republican co-sponsor. “I am pleased to support the Decentralized Wastewater Grant Act of 2021, which is a bipartisan bill that will provide much needed assistance to communities around the country to install wastewater systems or connect to public wastewater treatment systems.”

The grant program established by the Decentralized Wastewater Grant Act of 2021 would provide grants to qualified nonprofit organizations, which would then provide sub-grants to eligible individuals lacking adequate wastewater infrastructure. Directing funds to organizations with expertise in this issue will help ensure that grants reach those individuals who are most in need.

The bill provides $50 million for each fiscal year 2022 through 2026, totaling $250 million.

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A 2016 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that aging pipes and inadequate infrastructure result in the discharge of 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage into U.S. waterways each year. In Alabama, an estimated 200,000 private septic tanks not connected to municipal systems need repairs or replacement. Each septic system can cost up to $20,000, making them out of reach for most families living in the Seventh Congressional District.

On May 10, 2021, the Joe Biden (D) Administration announced that funds distributed to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments through the American Rescue Plan’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund can be used to invest in water and sewer infrastructure, including vital wastewater systems. Comprehensive guidance from the U.S. Department of Treasury can be found here.

Congresswoman Terri Sewell is in her sixth term representing Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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