EPA head touts infrastructure plan to help Metro Detroit recover from flooding, replace lead pipes

By Mark Hicks and Ben Wilson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday said a proposed bipartisan infrastructure deal would upgrade water infrastructure to help Michigan communities in flood-prone areas and replace 10 million lead pipes nationally as well as in Michigan. 

"President Biden and a bipartisan infrastructure framework will help us eliminate these lead pipes, improve the resiliency of our infrastructure, and most importantly, support communities for recovery from disaster," said EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan speaks during a press conference at the Water Resource Recovery Facility in Detroit, July 8, 2021.

The EPA administrator toured Water Resource Recovery Facility on Detroit's southwest side  before speaking at a press conference with local and elected officials about the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework.

The plan President Joe Biden and a group of 10 bipartisan senators agreed to last month proposes $579 billion in new spending over the next five years, with total expenditures of $973 billion over five years and $1.2 trillion over eight years.

The deal would spend $55 billion to improve drinking water and wastewater systems and $47 billion in resiliency efforts to tackle climate change.

Regan pointed to the deal in helping Michigan communities affected by last month's flooding.

"We see the need to replace and upgrade water infrastructure to revitalize those communities — for the next century," he said.

Regan called the plan "transformational," including the use of money needed to replace the nation's lead pipes "and by putting dollars into our communities."

"It will create good paying union jobs and strengthen the future water workforce that our nation's so badly needs," he said.

The framework has its critics on both sides of the aisle, the Associated Press reported. A group of influential conservative groups says the compromise bill would “spend $1.2 trillion on Left-leaning priorities and fails to properly pay for it.” The groups said some of the pay-fors identified in the bipartisan blueprint should be used to pay down the national debt.

The Water Resource Recovery Facility, which the Great Lakes Water Authority calls the largest single-site wastewater treatment facility in the United States, "underscores exactly why we need to invest ... in our aging water infrastructure," Regan said.

Great Lakes Water Authority CEO Sue McCormick applauded the proposed federal investments in the nation's aging water systems.

"My team tells me that more than $40 million for capital improvement projects will be needed within the next five years for this facility alone, significant investments are needed to prepare the facility to withstand future storms, and other impacts from climate change, which we know are becoming more visible and more extreme."

Regan estimated that over the next 20 years, Michigan's drinking water infrastructure could require $13 billion in additional funding.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, who recently joined activists in calling for major federal spending on infrastructure due to recent flooding they blame on climate change, said "many of these infrastructures are in the backyard of communities of color, and they have to pay the brunt when we do not invest enough. They have to smell it, they have to live with it."

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said "infrastructure is not a partisan issue."

"It's something that affects every American, and we're starting the conversation now, that as we get emergency relief to the victims," he said. "How would we rebuild the infrastructure here, so that it doesn't happen again."

Regan acknowledged recent flooding in the region from a "1,000 year" flood last month.

Parts of Metro Detroit saw as much as 7 inches of rain in less than day, resulting in basement backups for thousands.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has requested the Federal Emergency Management Agency conduct a joint preliminary damage assessment with state and local officials to review damages and response costs related to the heavy rainfall and flooding in Wayne County.

FEMA officials were in the field assessing damage on Thursday as Duggan detailed a plan to help residents recover with federal help.

Appearing with Regan at the water facility on Thursday, Sue McCormick, the Great Lakes Water Authority CEO, said federal investments are a boon in overhauling aging systems.

"We need a plan. We need to strategize and we need to implement it," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, left. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib said Thursday communities of color often "pay the brunt when we do not invest enough" in infrastructure.

"We have all of this infrastructure that's aged in many of our areas and it needs to be improved and it needs to be maintained," she said.

On Thursday, the results of a survey by the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative found that shoreline cities and towns in the Great Lakes region will be spending heavily in coming years to fix public infrastructure damaged by flooding and erosion, with estimated costs approaching $2 billion, officials said Thursday.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell said Thursday at the gathering that she has called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete an independent study to help determine the most pressing infrastructure needs in the region.

"Then we need to come together at the federal, state and local level," she said. "... We need a plan. We need to strategize and we need to implement it."