Vermont receives millions for water infrastructure. Where will the money be spent?

Burlington Wastewater Treatment Facility
The Burlington Wastewater Treatment Plant on Lavalley Lane in Burlington. Jon Groveman, policy and water program director for the Natural Resources Council, said the windfall ahead could be a good time to upgrade Vermont’s aging wastewater treatment facilities, especially those that treat wastewater. wastewater and stormwater together in one system. File photo by Bob LoCicero / VTDigger

Water supply projects in Vermont are expected to receive a major financial boost.

Vermont will receive $ 63 million in fiscal year 2022 of the bipartisan water infrastructure law, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday.

“$ 63 million is the first year,” said Neil Kamman, director of the state’s Water Investments Division. “The bill has five years of supply, and it increases over time. It’s a big deal. ”

Using water-related money, which stands at $ 50 billion across the country, EPA urges states to “tackle disproportionate environmental burdens in historically underserved communities across the country “, according to an announcement from the agency.

“As leaders, we must seize this moment,” said Michael Regan, administrator of the EPA. “Billions of dollars are about to start flowing to states and it is critical that the EPA partners with states, tribes and territories to ensure that the benefits of these investments are delivered in the way they are best. more equitable. ”

While Vermont is still awaiting some guidance from the EPA to support safeguards for funding, Kamman said it will be funneled into several state programs.

The Vermont Revolving Loan Fund program has two components – one for projects such as wastewater treatment and pollution prevention, and another for drinking water, Kamman said. Each year, the EPA makes grants available to states for both of these purposes.

“We’re putting, say, $ 10 million into the Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund,” he said. “Then we loan those dollars to eligible borrowers at subsidized rates to build water infrastructure. Borrowers pay back those dollars over a period of time, the money goes back into the fund, and the fund revolves.

But this time around, the borrowers – the municipalities and organizations that will design the projects – won’t have to repay all that money.

“They make sure that the state is allowed to essentially give at least 50%, if not 100%, of those dollars, depending on specific programs for the money,” Kamman said.

The three programs include a general increase in the amount of money available for water projects through revolving funds, funding for projects that reduce lead contamination in drinking water, and funding for programs that address contaminants of concern, such as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

The lead-focused program would use $ 30 million per year to remove lead service lines, which lead from the street to a house, and distribution lines, which are pipes on the street. It’s valuable, Kamman said, because it’s costly for a municipality to investigate each individual line. A recent project in Bennington cost $ 11 million.

During those five years, $ 8 million per year will be allocated to prevent contaminants – with an emphasis on PFAS – from polluting drinking water supplies. Exposure to the toxic chemical group is known to cause a variety of adverse health effects.

“There are a growing number of communities whose water supplies are contaminated with PFAS and need to either relocate wells, replace wells or install treatment,” Kamman said. “And these dollars are going to give us a lot of flexibility and leeway to do this job.”

Prioritize frontline communities

In using the money, state officials should prioritize vulnerable groups most at risk of pollution damage, according to the EPA and state group advocates.

Bindu Panikkar, who focuses on environmental justice issues as an assistant professor at the Rubenstein School for Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, said she had seen concerns arise over water pollution statewide.

Through her work with a group called Rural Environmental Justice Opportunities Informed by Community Expertise, or REJOICE, she has learned that some mobile home communities depend on bottled water, she said.

“I would like to see the state prioritize infrastructure spending in the most vulnerable communities and involve them in identifying local concerns when planning these steps,” she said. “Flood mitigation planning in these communities, pollution mitigation, better sewerage infrastructure in these communities are all things that come to mind. “

Jon Groveman, director of the policy and water program at the Natural Resources Council, said now may be a good time to upgrade Vermont’s aging wastewater treatment facilities, especially those that treat wastewater and water rainwater together in one system. The problem often results in overflows that drain into local waterways, but repairing systems often costs tens of millions of dollars.

The funding could also be used to create centralized sanitation systems in small villages in Vermont, Groveman said.

The infrastructure bill is one of a series of federal funds coming to Vermont. Of the $ 1.02 billion allocated to Vermont through the American Rescue Plan Act, the legislature has indicated it wants to allocate $ 200 million for water infrastructure projects.

Another concern, said Groveman, is Vermont’s ability to effectively distribute all federal money. He suggested that part of the money could be used, both at the state level and at the regional and local level, to hire staff who could review permits and implement projects.

The projects are especially important in historically underserved communities in Vermont, he said, such as mobile home parks, where residents often have failing water systems and septic systems.

Using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, the state is creating a program that will specifically help residents of mobile home communities undertake water infrastructure projects. Kamman said the EPA has guided the state to target these investments on vulnerable communities, and they have already had conversations with housing advocates.

“The area where I look forward to our people doing more,” he said, is outreach to vulnerable and historically marginalized communities to “ensure we have a solid conversation across Vermont”.

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