Stimulus Dollars to Flush Town's Sewage Problem?

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Stimulus Dollars to Flush Town's Sewage Problem?

Postby StephanieCutts » Mon May 25, 2009 10:58 pm

Flushing government stimulus cash down the toilet?

Associated Press Writer

AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
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Stimulus Dollars to Flush Town's Sewage Problem?

CARBON HILL, Ill. (AP) -- Sewage from toilets flows in open ditches here, spilling into back yards and even onto the lone baseball diamond where children play after school. The nose-wrinkling stench carries throughout this century-old, one-diner village outside Chicago.

It's a wastewater nightmare that the mayor, Mike Cerny, and officials in similarly hard-pressed communities around the country hope they can end by winning some of the $4 billion set aside for sewage and water-quality projects in the Obama administration's federal stimulus plan.

"We gotta deal with this," said Cerny, who for months has spent any free time away from his day job as a mechanic filling out applications, lobbying, pleading - even praying - for the money.

"Some kid's gonna get sick," he said recently, desperation in his voice. "Someone's gonna die."

Sewers are among the most popular projects among mayors for stimulus money. Of more than 18,000 projects on a wish-list compiled from more than 700 communities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, more than 4,000 involved water or wastewater repairs or construction - second only to road projects.

"There's a lot of wacky old infrastructure out there that's decaying and not doing what it's supposed to do," said Alexis Strauss, a water official with the Environmental Protection Agency in California.

More than 700 communities rely on systems that mix sewage with storm water during heavy rains, then spew the overflow into waterways - sickening thousands of people annually with illnesses that include hepatitis and dysentery, according to the EPA. Smaller communities far from big-city treatment plants are among the worst off, though even some large cities suffer problems. Some, like Carbon Hill, have no sewers at all and rely on individual home septic systems that often fail.

The mayor in Carbon Hill estimates the village - with about 400 mostly low-income residents and an annual budget of $50,000 - needs $3 million to lay miles of pipe to safely carry sewage to the closest treatment plant. Cerny said money available under the stimulus law is "the best chance we've had to get this done."

Bringing all U.S. wastewater systems into good working order would cost as much as $500 billion, or roughly 100 times more than what's available under the stimulus law, according to the American Public Works Association.

"The stimulus money is a good start, but there is so much more to do," said Julia Anastasio, one of the group's lobbyists.

Competition among cities, towns and villages like Carbon Hill for the stimulus sewer money will be tough. In Illinois alone, about 750 sewer projects that would cost more than $3 billion are competing for the state's share of about $180 million, said Geoff Andres, an EPA official in Illinois overseeing those funds.

"No one has been yelling at me yet, but they will come August and September," Andres said.

Will sewer repairs stimulate the economy?

"It might create some temporary jobs, but once those projects are over so are the jobs," said Eileen Norcross, a public policy researcher at George Mason University. "I don't think these projects, worthy or not, will have that stimulus effect."

The Obama administration hasn't estimated how many jobs might be produced by stimulus sewer projects, although it has said the overall stimulus plan should create or save at least 3 million jobs. The Conference of Mayors estimated Carbon Hill's sewer project would create about 70 jobs, although village officials say they're puzzled how it arrived at that number.

Carbon Hill appears to have a good chance of getting stimulus money, according to the state EPA, in part because qualifying applications will get money on a first-come, first-serve basis. The agency expects to start notifying recipients toward the end of May.

But the man who lobbied hardest won't see a stimulus check, at least not as mayor. That's because Cerny fell victim to the politics of sewage, losing an April election to an opponent who raised doubts both about his ability to raise the money and long-term costs.

Still, Cerny vowed to work until the last day of his term, which is Tuesday, to land the federal money. The 47-year-old father of three still lives in Carbon Hill, after all.

Among the pluses of a new system, he said: "We'll be able to sit in our backyards and enjoy dinner, and not have to smell the sewer."
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