By Brandon Hunter, Ph.D. Candidate in Civil & Environmental Engineering at Duke University

On March 7th, 2019, Ms. Catherine Flowers, Practitioner-in-Residence at the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, traveled to Washington, D.C. and testified before U.S. Congress on issues involving rural wastewater infrastructure. The U.S. Congressional Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, led by Chairwoman Grace Napolitano, held a hearing in the Capitol Building about “How federal infrastructure investment can help communities modernize water infrastructure and address affordability challenges”. The Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) was a focal point of the hearing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administered CWSRF is a partnership program between federal and state governments which provides communities with an independent source of low-cost financing for water and wastewater infrastructure development. Ms. Flowers and other expert witnesses across the country were called to share with Congress their perspectives, critiques, concerns, and proposed paths forward to improve access to affordable safe water and wastewater for all.

Ms. Catherine Flowers, Rural Development Manager of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama.

Ms. Maureen Taylor, State Chairperson of Detroit Michigan, testified on behalf of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization

Professor Jill Heaps, Assistant Professor of Law at Vermont Law School

Mr. John Mokszycki, Water and Sewer Superintendent of the Town of Greenport, New York testified on behalf of the National Rural Water Association

Mr. Andrew Kricun, P.E., BCEE, Executive Director/Chief Engineer for the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority in Camden, New Jersey, testified on behalf of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

Mayor David Condon of the City of Spokane, Washington testified on behalf of the United States Conference of Mayors

Mr. Kricun addressed the need for equable access to safe infrastructure in rural communities similar to that in affluent communities, making comments like, “Your zip code shouldn’t determine if you have safe wastewater or not.”

Ms. Taylor’s testimony addressed how water providers and municipalities have neglected the needs of water quality and quantity across her state of Michigan, particularly communities of color, raising issues of environmental injustice. She highlighted examples such as the water quality crisis in Flint and the approximate 100,000 water shut-offs in Detroit and stigmatization regarding people’s inability to pay.

Professor Heaps’ estimates that there will be even more unjust shutoffs in the future and her testimony focused on issues with the current structure of how rates are usually determined across the county. She notes that there is a disproportionate burden on low-income and low-usage users because they still have to pay the same fixed rate as everybody else, which is based on capital expenses of water and wastewater infrastructure build costs. 

Mayor Condon and Mr. Mokszycki’s testimonies different spectrums of municipal water and wastewater capacity. Mayor Condon of Spokane emphasized the importance to use an integrative approach on the municipal level in order to effectively mean water quality standards. Mr. Mokszycki indicated that over 12,000 rural small towns have compromised wastewater infrastructure, with some town even having to rely on clay or cast-iron pipes and are not able to take advantage of larger scale integrative approaches.

Ms. Catherine Flowers shared a powerful personal story about growing up in Lowndes County, Alabama without access to safe wastewater treatment and how many of the conditions still exist today. Many systems are failing and some residents who are unable to afford systems are forced to resort to straight piping waste from their homes without treatment. Ms. Flowers also mentioned a recent study that demonstrated that over 30 percent of tested residents tested positive for hookworm and other tropical parasites long thought to be eradicated in the United States, warranting a visit from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty. This is not what people expect to see in this country.

After each witness provided their 5-minute testimonies, the congressional subcommittee asked questions directly towards one of the testifying witnesses depending on their expertise. There were a variety of questions and topics with over-arching themes through the entirety of the hearing.

With respect to technology, the panel believes that new investment in innovative treatment processes should be explored. Currently, about 20 percent of the United States uses on-site wastewater infrastructure. Yet, about 60% of the soils are poor and cannot support on-site septic systems, currently causing about half of all of the country’s septic systems to fail. Even for areas who rely on municipal services, technology needs to be improved. There are instances where people pay fees for wastewater treatment, but still have raw sewage flow back up through their toilets, tubs, and sometimes both. Inadequate treatment technologies are being implemented in unsuitable areas. New technologies and new investment are needed.

Mr. Mokszycki expressed the need for small committees and infrastructure financing such as the CWSRF, highlighting the importance of expanding upon loan forgiveness and zero percent interest infrastructure loan. Mr. Kricun noted that his ratepayers’ utility rates have only been raised by 4% in the last 23 years and this was only able to be accomplished because of the CWSRF program. He challengCongress members to similarly understand the vitalness of this program and increase the funds for it. As a revolving fund, entities are responsible for replenishing what was loaned to them for other entities to then use. Therefore, the CWSRF should be viewed as a “hand-up, not a hand-out”.

Another theme throughout the hearing was jobs. Ms. Taylor said that a large portion of Detroit’s population decline is because of the lack of jobs. But jobs can be created in improving water and wastewater infrastructure. Mr. Kricun suggests that wastewater infrastructure can be used to create jobs similar to how the highways were built.

It is not enough that access to water and wastewater infrastructure is safe, it should also be affordable to all communities, regardless of what people’s incomes are. Currently, there are about 13.8 million people struggle to pay utility bills. Ms. Flowers spoke about how in the United States, not being able to afford services is a crime. She provided shocking examples of poor Black residents from Alabama were fined and even criminalized for their inability to afford proper wastewater. These are blatant environmental injustices. Many of the expert witnesses believe that there should exist dedicated funding which should subsidize for those who need it most or who could otherwise not afford services. Professor Heaps provided examples such as Honolulu and Philadelphia’s tier system which are capped based on income. She also suggested that a grant program to be established and modeled after the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federal program administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Community Services, which provides financial assistance to low income persons to help heat or cool their residences by making direct payments to their utility providers. Similarly, other programs exist around the country for healthcare, education, food security, housing security, and more. However, there currently exists no federal level low-income funding program for water or wastewater access.

Ms. Flowers expressed that the state should be held accountable for failing systems instead of how it currently is with the burden being put on the homeowner. If funding is being used to design which continue to fail, the states and entities which approve those systems should be held accountable instead of the individual property owner. Ms. Taylor suggested that whenever private dollars being used to address public needs usually ends poorly for the people. For example, big private-companies experience little-to-none ramification for mass pollution while homeowners are being criminalized for not being able to afford utility bill for services which are failing them. There is something fundamentally wrong with this. She believes that it is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure everybody has access to safe and affordable water and wastewater infrastructure.

The theme most impactful to me from the hearing was the collective believe that water and wastewater are a human right throughout the entire country, as it is already in the state of California. Congress members voiced their concern of sourcing enough money in order to adequately address the estimated $600 billion gap in the United States’ water and wastewater infrastructure issues. Ms. Taylor emphasized the vitality of the issue pointing out that you don’t need to try hard to find money for something if it’s your priority. Shifting how the government views water and wastewater are key to adequately addressing these issues. Professor Heaps agreed, siting the U.S. Declaration of Independence which states that “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” as unalienable rights given to all humans by birth or by nature. And since there is no example of life on the entire planet, in any form, without water, water by the transitive property should be a right in and of itself. Water and wastewater should not be a partisan issue, but a national issue.

The expert panel challenged Congress to learn more about these issues, acknowledge the vastness of these problems, and include appropriate questions about access to treatment infrastructure on the U.S. Census. Witnesses asked to rid policies which criminalize those who cannot afford treatment. Congressmembers were also invited to visit places like Lowndes County, AL and to learn more about the rural constituents in their own districts. It was also made it clear that all future funding for infrastructure improvements should take into consideration the realities of climate change, community input, and take into account the specific environmental conditions of specific of differing geographies. Ms. Flowers challenged if the United States can treat wastewater in space, it is not unrealistic to see a time where all people on Earth can have access to adequate treatment.

The U.S. Congressional Committee hearing on water and wastewater infrastructure proved to be an exciting dynamic between policy makers and an array of testimonies from professionals with a diverse range of expertise and experiences. In addition to Ms. Flowers inviting me to accompany her for her Congressional hearing, the Washington, D.C. trip also included us and Jenifer Collins, a legislative representative from Earthjustice, having scheduled individual meetings with various government officials regarding improving water and wastewater infrastructure including the staff of Senator Cory Booker (NJ).  Throughout all of these experiences, there was a strong sense of collective need to address access with respect to quantity, quality, resiliency, equity, and time. I hope to live in a society where access to safe and affordable water and wastewater is a universal reality. These federal level discussions and presentations are vital steps in the right direction.

To learn more about the EPA CWSRF please visit the EPA’s website (here). For the full live-recording video of the U.S. Congressional Committee hearing, please visit the U.S. House of Representatives webpage (here). Full transcripts of each of the expert witnesses’ testimonies are available for download.

Photographs provided by Brandon Hunter