The bipartisan infrastructure bill that became law last month has billions of dollars in it for roads, bridges, airports and transit systems in the Ohio Valley.
The law also addresses some of the region’s other pressing needs.
The $1 trillion infrastructure law has the potential to deliver big improvements to Appalachia. It will help reclaim abandoned mine sites, putting laid-off coal miners back to work.
It will help replace lead water pipes and clean up chemical contamination in water supplies.
It will also bring much-needed high-speed internet to rural communities, helping seniors on fixed incomes and children whose schools closed down during the coronavirus pandemic.
While some of the funding will produce immediate benefit for the region, other improvements may take years to complete. People familiar with the region’s needs see both short- and long-term impacts from the law.
Appalachian states have an abundance of mines that were abandoned before 1977, and they present hazards to public safety and the environment.
The infrastructure bill dedicates $11.3 billion to abandoned mine reclamation. Adam Wells, regional director for economic and community development for Appalachian Voices, said the bill offers two things the region desperately needs.
“I think the top line here is that it can immediately put people to work in coalfield communities, using skills and equipment that folks have at the ready,” he said, “and the benefit of environmental remediation is great to see as well.”
Wells said one challenge will be putting the people in place to administer the funding, which he said is the largest sum ever dedicated to mine reclamation.
“So they’re going to have to really rapidly staff up and get new systems in place to get that money back out the door at the pace that’s needed,” he said.
Coalfield communities have been promised either a rebound in coal, or an influx of new jobs building solar panels and other clean energy technology. So far, neither has materialized.
Wells said mine reclamation buys time for Appalachia to build a new, diversified and more resilient economy.
“Reclamation feels pretty grounded in what is possible, and what’s happening,” Wells said.
The infrastructure law includes $50 billion in Environmental Protection Agency funds to upgrade the country’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems.
Critically, it enables the replacement of lead service pipes. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, brought the issue to the forefront. More recently, the water system in Clarksburg, West Virginia, was revealed to have elevated levels of lead in drinking water.
Clarksburg is in the process of replacing its lead service lines.
The water funds will also help state and local governments address another growing problem: Contamination from PFAS, or forever chemicals.
Much of the funding will flow through state revolving funds. Todd Grinstead, executive director of the West Virginia Rural Water Association, said the assistance is welcome.
“You’re looking at quite an increase in funding for our state revolving funds, both the clean water and the drinking water side,” he said.
Grinstead said the large increase in state revolving funds can allow water systems to retire debt. That keeps them from having to charge their customers more to make needed investments.
“And when utilities do projects, they don’t like increasing bills for people. They like to do it cheap as they can,” he said. “But it’s also necessary to do the upgrades to be able to keep the quality of service up.”
With population loss in many coalfield communities, water systems aren’t adding many new customers. But they still have to repair and replace the infrastructure they have.
“It’s one thing to get money and install pipes and stuff. But time goes by pretty quick,” Grinstead said. “And next thing, you know, you’ve got stuff that needs replaced.”
The COVID pandemic laid bare one of the biggest disparities between population centers and rural communities: Access to high-speed internet.
With schools closed, many students had difficulty making the connection for remote learning.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said frustrated parents drove their kids to school parking lots to get WiFi.
Lee said some schools brought buses to remote communities to attempt to connect students to the internet. It couldn’t reach all of them, he said.
“In our rural state, like we have in West Virginia, this is a major problem,” he said. “And it’s a problem, not only for education and our students, but it’s for attracting businesses too.”
The infrastructure law provides $65 billion to build out broadband connections in rural areas.
Some liken it to the rural electrification efforts of the 1930s, which proved transformative for large portions of the country but took years to build.
“It is a very helpful thing. And the key now is to use the funds and get things going as quickly as possible,” Lee said. “But again, it’s not gonna happen overnight.”
Lee said educators from across the country gave input as lawmakers developed the broadband component of the infrastructure bill.
Lee said it has to be affordable for low-income families and seniors on fixed incomes. The law does include funding to reimburse households for a portion of their monthly internet costs.
“I mean, this is not an easy task,” he said. “It will take some time plus, you also have to provide some assistance to low income families to ensure that their kids can have this connectivity.”
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