Sanders: Water infrastructure "top priority"

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BENNINGTON — Calling it a top priority, Bernie Sanders says it's time to replace aging water infrastructure in Vermont and across the county, saying the investment would address widespread concerns over drinking water safety and create millions of jobs.

Aging pipes and outdated wastewater plants, and tainted drinking water supplies, are serious issues that affect southern Vermont and beyond, he said.

He backs a $1 trillion legislative proposal that calls for rebuilding roads, bridges and water infrastructure across the country. There's growing support for such a plan among Democrats and Republicans, he said, who agree it would spur economic growth.

But the independent U.S. Senator from Vermont told the Banner on Friday that he doesn't see the same bipartisan support for environmental protection policy, including testing water for contaminants like PFOA, and criticized Donald Trump's administration for its environmental protection record, calling it "atrocious."

"I don't think it's asking too much," Sanders said during a phone interview."That in the richest country in the history of the world, when people turn on a faucet in their home, the water that comes out is clean and drinkable."

Sanders held a meeting in Burlington on May 5 to talk about Vermont's water infrastructure needs. In attendance were drinking water and wastewater facility operators, town managers, water quality experts, and state and federal officials.

About 2 percent of Vermonters drink water from a system with known health violations. It's been estimated that, during the next two decades, the state must invest $510 million to upgrade small community water systems alone.

Southern Vermont isn't a stranger to issues around water. In Bennington, a bond question to pay for state-mandated upgrades at the town's wastewater treatment facility must be put to voters by October. The project is estimated to cost between $9.5 to $11 million.

And many residents in the region are affected by drinking water contaminated with PFOA. Filters have been installed on many public and private water supplies after the man-made chemical turned up in southwestern Vermont and communities in Rensselaer County in New York, notably Hoosick Falls.

Roads and bridges, as more "visible" infrastructure, gather much attention, Sanders said. But issues around water is a growing need in Vermont and around the country. He described visiting Flint, Mich. last year and speaking with parents whose children were poisoned after drinking lead-contaminated water.

Operating, maintaining and upgrading wastewater treatment facilities is an expensive operation, he said. And it's difficult to go to ratepayers who may already be overwhelmed by property taxes. Regarding Bennington, that much money for a small community "is not easy," Sanders said.

Sanders said a plan introduced this year would provide funding to projects like the one in Bennington. Some $1 trillion would go towards replacing crumbling water infrastructure, as well as railways, broadband networks, VA hospitals, schools and airports. The "Blueprint to Rebuild America's Infrastructure" was introduced in January by Sanders and other senators including Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont).

A potential hurdle in addressing water quality could be the current administration's environmental policy. Sanders has been vocal in his criticism of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration for being dismissive towards climate change and environmental policy, which he reiterated on Friday.

"We need enforceable standards, but we also need to make sure communities have resources to ensure water is clean," Sanders said.

Sanders said there will be "strong differences in opinions" on how the billions of dollars in projects would be paid for. And the Trump administration could soon be introducing its own proposal. The Washington Post reported this week that Trump will soon outline a vision of an infrastructure package. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, speaking at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event, indicated $1 trillion in projects would rely heavily on state, local and private funds.

But Sanders expressed concern that private investments could lead to the privatization of infrastructure and higher prices for consumers in the future. He favors closing loopholes in the tax system, which he said enables corporations to not pay federal taxes, and using the revenue to fund construction projects, which in turn would create new jobs.

Sanders said that progress has been made. A $1 trillion proposal to replace infrastructure that he backed several years ago was thought to be too much at the time.

"Republicans weren't interested in it, Democrats insisted we cut it in half," he said. "But today the $1 trillion amount is the number we're talking about."

Reach staff writer Edward Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111 or @edamon_banner.

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