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Prichard utility seeks $333 million in COVID grants – more than Alabama has

Published: Apr. 1, 2022 at 6:20 PM CDT
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PRICHARD, Ala. (WALA) - Alabama has more than $200 million in COVID-19 funds to spend on water and sewer upgrades, but it looks like that won’t be enough.

The Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board, alone has applied for grants totaling $333 million – out of a total of $225 million that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has received from American Rescue Plan Act for water and sewer upgrades.

“ADEM has received quite a few applications and are expecting to receive more applications,” agency spokeswoman Lynn Battle said Friday.

As of last month, nearly 400 Alabama utilities had submitted applications. Those include four other utilities in Mobile County. But none have asked for anywhere approach Prichard’s request – including the much-bigger Mobile Area Water and Sewer System, which is seeking less than half as much.

For perspective, the Prichard utility’s annual operating budget is about $9 million. But board Chairman Russell Heidelburg told FOX10 News that the money the utility is seeking would be for capital expenses, not operations. And the long-term infrastructure needs are great, he added.

“Most of them (water and sewer utilities) have the same problems we have – infrastructure that was put in in the ‘50s,” he said.

ADEM is spending $5 million on demonstration projects to study obstacles to sewer systems in the Black Belt region.

“They’re prioritizing the middle part of the state because they don’t have sewers,” he said. “They have septic tanks.”

The Prichard system grant applications break down like this:

  • $135 million for sewer extension citywide.
  • $100 million to repair water leaks.
  • $76 million for projects to prevent rainwater from seeping into sewer pipes.
  • $22 million for a rehabilitation project involving The Morris Apartments.

Heidelburg said the utility would like to replace decades-old pipes.

“We have leaks all the time,” he said.

Prichard resident Abraham Slay recently told FOX10 News that a water main break under the sidewalk opened a large hole in front of his house on Haig Street. He said he has been trying to get it fixed for 2½ years. He said he even put cones around the hole at his own expense.

“When I go to get mail out of the mailbox, I could fall into the hole,” he said. “And when I clean my yard, I’m afraid I’m gonna fall and the sidewalk gonna cave in.”

Lifelong Prichard resident Gabriel Dortch said he has seen plenty of evidence of a crumbling system.

“I mean, there’s a serious problem with infrastructure. … “Busted water mains,” he said. “You always see ‘em digging. You know, sometimes residents complain about groundwater coming up the tap, you know, things of that nature. Sometimes about it leaking, the infrastructure, the streets will collapse because of that – because of water eroding the dirt underneath.”

At the same time, Dortch said, he is concerned about tens of millions of dollars flowing into a utility that is the subject of an ongoing FBI criminal investigation into misuse of funds.

“My concern is how it’s going to be policed,” he said. “Because, you know, that’s a lot of money and Prichard water – the city of Prichard, you know – has had a history of not being accurate and being, you know, according to the guidelines when they’re receiving federal funds.”

Battle said ADEM hopes to award the first grants by the beginning of June.