Linda McNeil moved into her three-bedroom home in Mount Vernon, New York, 21 years ago. Six weeks after she closed on the property, heavy rain caused her water pipes to back up and sewage to flood her basement. It was the first in a string of ongoing backups over the last two decades, damaging her property and threatening the physical and mental health of her and her family. The latest backup of sewer water into her home was just this past weekend, kicked off by a summer rainstorm. “We’d have a mix of rainwater and raw sewage in the basement,” said McNeil’s daughter, Eileen Lambert. “Probably about three feet.”
The first time the McNeil’s house flooded, all of their basement living room furniture was destroyed, as well as a freezer and their built-in bar. Over the years as the flooding continued, McNeil installed a pump system that cost $15,000 and the family stopped using the basement for fear of it flooding. Around four years ago, McNeil and Lambert were displaced from their home due to severe sewage backups that the city wasn’t able to fix immediately. “We used to have these big huge tankers that would just sit out in the woods across from our house, that pumped around the clock,” Lambert told Grist. “Even then, it still wasn’t relieving the sewage pressure up against our home.”
From Thanksgiving weekend until after Valentine’s Day they stayed in a motel. “We finally got it clear, we were able to come back home, and we were good for about three years,” she said. Then it happened again. The back ups were so bad that McNeil was displaced from her home again.
In total, Lambert estimates her mother has spent $50,000 dealing with the effects of the ongoing sewage backups. The first year her mom’s insurance company paid for some of the damages, but after that the loss was on them.
For almost two decades, residents in the majority Black city of Mount Vernon have lived with raw sewage backing up into their homes, flooding their streets, and polluting local waterways. In just the past three years, the city has experienced 900 sewer backups. Light rain is enough to overwhelm the city’s sewer pipes, leaving residents to vacuum up the waste that enters their homes themselves with a wet vac, with little redress from city officials.
“I’ve been to New York many times and was shocked to see that 20 minutes away from NYC, Third World conditions are impacting this city,” Catherine Flowers, vice chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, said in a press conference last week, calling on the Biden administration to provide relief.
Mount Vernon is not alone.
The city is just one of many communities of color across the United States disproportionately affected by aging and failing wastewater infrastructure, made worse by increasingly frequent severe rain events caused by climate change. Wastewater networks across America received a D+, according to an analysis done by the American Society of Civil Engineers — and many of the hardest hit communities are low-income and communities of color. But environmental justice advocates hope that President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure package could finally provide relief. Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework package would be the largest investment in wastewater infrastructure in U.S. history. Biden has proposed spending $56 billion in grants and loans to states, territories, and Tribes for updating aging drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems by increasing the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.
Backed up sewage is costly and dangerous to residents. Individuals often spend thousands of dollars trying to address the issue in their home, only for it to occur again and again. Intense rainfall, becoming more common with climate change, can overwhelm a city’s shared sewer system, causing wastewater with nowhere to go to back up into people’s homes through toilets, sinks, and drainage outlets in basement floors. Exposure to raw wastewater can create ongoing mold issues, ruin personal property, and cause sickness from the parasite hookworm and typhoid.
In Detroit, residents have repeatedly dealt with sewage backups over the years as the frequency of intense rainfall increases. During record rainfall at the end of June, where 6 inches of rain fell in 24 hours in Detroit, sewers overflowed and officials were forced to direct almost 10 billion gallons of wastewater — laden with human feces and everything else that goes down a residential drain — into nearby waterways that ultimately flow into the Great Lakes. In Centreville, Illinois, a city that is 96 percent Black, residents have been dealing with the same problem for the last three decades. Everyday rain causes raw sewage backups, and neighbors describe using boats to navigate feces-filled roads.
Functioning wastewater systems aren’t just an urban issue in the United States. An estimated 2 million Americans don’t have basic plumbing, and rural communities are disproportionately affected by the issue as they utilize individualized systems like septic tanks, versus a shared city system, and can fall through the cracks amid a loose patchwork of regulations.
The rural town of Ferriday in Louisiana also struggles with crumbling wastewater infrastructure. In Ferriday, everyday rain triggers sewage backups onto streets and around homes, where residents say no one will help them despite pleas to the mayor, local lawmakers, and the health department. Just 150 miles north, Greenville, Mississippi has dumped raw sewage into nearby waterways hundreds of times, violating the Clean Water Act. As a result, a federal judge signed off on an agreement in 2016 that the city and EPA must work together to fix the sewage issues for approximately $22 million within six years, after which it will be determined if Greenville will be fined for previous violations.
Activists say long-term negligence and disinvestment in these communities by political leaders means that these communities and others don’t have the budget to make the serious wastewater infrastructure updates that are needed. An estimated 15 percent of wastewater treatment plants nationally have expired and need updates. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates it would cost $1 trillion to update water infrastructure across the country — not just wastewater infrastructure, but to ensure clean drinking water as well. Other studies show an estimated $271 billion is needed over the next 20 years for wastewater and stormwater updates, just to meet current standards.
“In communities of color, it can be traced to racial covenants, red lining, and plain old racism,” Flowers told Grist. Racial covenants and redlining were discriminatory tools used until the 1970s that restricted where people of color could live in a city and the services available to them, including quality governmental services and safe housing.
In Mount Vernon, the city’s pipes are a century old and made of clay. They’re quite literally crumbling, and can’t handle huge influxes of water — particularly problematic as the climate warms. But the city hasn’t done anything about it. For the last two decades, Mount Vernon has not complied with orders from the federal government to fix the mess, landing them a potential $90 million in penalty fines and the subject of a lawsuit.
The city is under court order to remedy the situation for violations under the Clean Water Act, due to repeated runoff of raw sewage into the Hutchinson and Bronx rivers. In 2018, a U.S. district judge ordered Mount Vernon to fix the problem, in response to a lawsuit filed by the federal and state government. Before this, it had failed to fix the issue as ordered by the EPA — twice.
To top it off, Mount Vernon has some of the highest property taxes in the country, with the average homeowner paying more than $17,000 a year. Yet residents receive little relief from the city for short-term and long-term wastewater issues. “I pay $21,000 in public taxes,” resident Wayne Fletcher told the newspaper Lohud, “to have my kids living in feces.” McNeil similarly pays around $17,000 a year, according to Lambert.
The city’s financial situation is unclear, with Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard and Comptroller Deborah Reynolds blaming each other for the ongoing sewage crisis, and accusations that sewage companies haven’t been paid for past work, including one company that was owed more than $175,000. Mayor Patterson-Howard estimated it would cost $200 million to fix the city’s crumbling sewage lines. The city’s overall annual budget is $123 million.
Last Wednesday, July 21, Republicans blocked the infrastructure bill from moving through the Senate, saying they wanted more time to finalize what was in the package. They are reportedly stuck on transit negotiations. But, the group of senators negotiating the bill said they still feel optimistic about finishing and advancing the legislation in the next few days. If or when it passes, policy experts say it could be a lifeline for communities like Mount Vernon, Detroit, Centreville, Ferriday, and Greenville.
More generally, Flowers said, the Biden Administration could provide relief through the Justice40 Initiative, a plan to direct 40 percent of overall spending to disadvantaged communities.
“We must ensure that communities like Mount Vernon are not left out,” Flowers told Grist, “so the residents there can flush their toilets without it coming back into their homes or their neighbor’s home.”