In response to Maryland’s water woes, the Environmental Protection Agency will allocate $144 million from President Biden’s infrastructure bill to the state to improve drinking water and wastewater management systems.

The funding includes $76 million now being made available to the Maryland Department of Environmental Protection for distribution to cities and other local municipalities following an outbreak of E. coli contamination earlier this month in Baltimore’s drinking water and what state environmental regulators called catastrophic failures at two of the city’s sewage treatment plants.

Another $68 million from the infrastructure bill will be allocated in the 2023 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, to replace lead water pipes and treat so-called pollutants in sewage and stormwater. These pollutants include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, “permanent chemicals” known as PFAS, and a range of pharmaceuticals and hormones found in human sewage, agricultural products, and personal care products and household cleaners, all of which can have devastating effects. on fish and other aquatic species.

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Baltimore’s two sewage treatment plants, Back River and Patapska, the largest in the state, were named earlier this year by the Department of Environmental Protection. dump large volumes of untreated sewage and pollutants into Chesapeake Bay tributaries. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, a regional partnership between government agencies at all levels, environmental groups and academic institutions, failures at these plants contributed to a significant increase in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution last year in the bay.

Water quality must improve in 70 percent of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries for the estuary to function as a healthy ecosystem, the Chesapeake Bay Program announced in mid-September during a 2018-2020 assessment data sharing that showed the Bay’s water quality had declined by 3 .5 percent compared to 2017-2019.

Last year’s infrastructure legislation provides EPA with more than $50 billion to repair the nation’s essential water infrastructure to help communities access clean, safe, and reliable drinking water, build resilience, and collect and treat wastewater to protect public health. eliminate pollution and protect vital waterways.

Adam Ortiz, EPA administrator for the Mid-Atlantic region, said in an interview that the new waves of funding represent an opportunity to take care of liabilities that communities have lived with for too long. “Whether it’s providing safe and clean drinking water or treating wastewater that enters our local streams and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, these investments are long overdue. But we are glad that they are here,” he said.

Some of the new pollutants are far more dangerous to human health than previously thought, Ortiz said, citing the grants, which deal mostly with unregulated chemicals and compounds that threaten waterways and aquatic life. “We have to help all these utilities, whether they’re big or small, grow, and the infrastructure doesn’t always keep up with the science. But this is our opportunity to close this gap,” he said.

$144 million in infrastructure funding will be provided through the Maryland Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, which are loan programs between the federal government and states that provide low-interest grants and loans to local governments for public infrastructure projects such as improvements sewage treatment plants.

“The interest earned on these loans helps fund the program in future years — creating a ‘revolving’ fund that allows each state’s program to grow independently,” said Sean Jackson, national water companies coordinator for the environmental nonprofit Clean Water Action. While the EPA provides guidelines and some rules for each state to follow, states have a lot of discretion in how they manage and distribute their SRF funds, he added.

Under the infrastructure bill, nearly half of the funding available through state SRFs is to be provided in the form of grants or forgivable loans to make it easier for local governments and municipalities to invest in basic water infrastructure in underserved communities. SRFs also fall under the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative, a commitment to provide at least 40 percent of certain federal program costs to low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately affected by air and water pollution and the negative effects of climate change.

“In low-income communities, these cash grants and loan forgiveness funds can significantly reduce the burden of repairing damaged infrastructure,” said Evan Isaacson, senior attorney at the nonprofit Chesapeake Legal Alliance.

He said it’s important for states to receive these periodic infusions of “catch-up” infrastructure funds, adding that over the years these federal infrastructure funds have expanded to include innovative projects related to energy efficiency, climate resilience and green infrastructure. “If implemented well, the funds will also go to projects in the right communities in line with the Justice40 initiative. It’s a big deal, even if it’s small compared to the overall need,” Isaacson said.

Jackson, the water campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action, called the funding “a long time coming” and said, “The EPA has long said it would take nearly $800 billion just to cover and maintain water costs, and an additional trillion would be needed to adapt water systems to the coming demands of climate change’.

There are enough funds to make some progress, especially in long-forgotten communities, Jackson said. “One thing that would be helpful for many states is to be able to do a full inventory of water systems to make sure there is no lead in the drinking water,” he said. “There is a separate fund for the replacement of the line. For states that don’t have known problems with the underwater line, the funds can be used to make sure they do.”

Ten percent of the funds should be used for environmentally friendly or innovative projects, which Jackson said could really help stop the flooding and heat islands that have plagued Maryland for the past decade.

An agency official said the $76 million now available to the Maryland Department of Environmental Protection (MDE) could take more than a year for the EPA to fully distribute due to a higher-than-usual number of grant and loan applications.

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