EPA Offers Remedy for Inequitable System That Has Left Low-Income Residents Nationwide with Polluted Water and Unaffordable Water Bills

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today released new guidelines on how to protect low-income communities from sewage pollution without making utility bills unaffordable for low-income residents.  

The following is a reaction by Larry Levine, Director of Urban Water Infrastructure and Senior Attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC): 

“The new EPA guidelines offer a remedy for the two-tiered system now in place that lets wealthy communities enjoy safe sanitation and clean water but leaves low-income communities and communities of color stuck with second-class service that poses risks to their health and the environment. 

 “For the first time, EPA is placing a responsibility on cities—with help from EPA and the states—to fund critical wastewater investments equitably, rather than on the backs of low-income residents who struggle to afford rising water and sewer bills. This is an important step towards making clean water affordable for everyone.”  


When antiquated municipal sewer systems dump raw sewage and polluted runoff into local waterways—or back-up sewage directly into streets and basements—health and environmental burdens often fall on communities of color and low-income communities. The Clean Water Act requires them to clean up their act, but these fixes can be expensive and take time to implement. Problems often fester for years or even decades when local systems are unable or unwilling to marshal the financial resources needed for system improvements.  

Long “compliance schedules”—sometimes decades long—are driven by obscure EPA guidelines (the “Financial Capability Assessment” guidance) dating back to 1997 that the EPA overhauled today. The old guidelines allowed cities to continue raw sewage discharges, which disproportionately harm environmental justice communities, if a city has many low-income residents who struggle to afford rising water and sewer bills.  

As NRDC, along with frontline partners and other advocacy groups, urged, EPA’s guidance takes an approach that can:

- drive more cities to adopt water affordability solutions, such as:

  • capping bills for low-income residents at a percentage of income; 
  • adopting “lifeline” rates with a low charge for an initial amount of usage sufficient to meet each household’s essential needs; 
  • offering bill discounts to low-income customers; 

- incentivize states to prioritize disadvantaged communities when allocating billions of dollars under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to help those communities end chronic sewage pollution without passing all of the cost to impacted residents. 

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

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