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Carper Urges Senate to Tie Virus Aid to Utility Shut-Off Bans

July 23, 2020, 7:00 PM

Any future coronavirus stimulus funding to states and local governments should be tied to continued gas, water, and sewer service to households hard hit by the economic downturn, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said Thursday.

Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, urged his colleagues “to confer upon state and local governments and utilities the responsibility of ensuring that households remain connected, or are reconnected, to utility service during the Covid-19 crisis,” as a condition of receiving federal funding.

His remarks accompanied a Democratic staff report released Thursday that found only 10 states and the District of Columbia currently have full moratoriums on water, power, and gas utility shut-offs that protect residential ratepayers who are unable to pay their bills because of the pandemic. Fifteen states had such moratoriums in April.

Degrees of Protection

Some 22 states offer varying degrees of protection to ratepayers, while 18 states have no existing protections against residential utility disconnections, according to the report.

Alluding to another report released by the Democratic staff on the pandemic’s impact on pollution, Carper said, “The families in communities hardest hit by the coronavirus are now at risk of losing access to the electricity, gas, or water services—especially those in economically disadvantaged communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color.”

To date, more than 830 organizations, 113 members of Congress, and hundreds of thousands of people have called for a nationwide moratorium on utility shut-offs for water, electricity, and broadband services.

The House-approved HEROES Act included a nationwide moratorium on shut-offs. The Senate has yet to act, though it’s negotiating a Covid-19 response bill. Environmental and civil advocates, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, Corporate Accountability, Food & Water Action, and Free Press Action, are urging the Senate to take the cue from the House.

Moratoriums Decreasing

The nonprofit Food & Water Action’s live tracker reports 10 statewide moratoriums on water shut-offs and dozens of local moratoriums have already expired, leaving millions of people vulnerable to losing basic water services.

The decreasing number of utility moratoriums show what people across the U.S. have known for months: “We need a national moratorium on utility shut-offs,” Alissa Weinman, associate campaign director at Corporate Accountability, said Thursday.

Weinman said the coronavirus pandemic, and the ensuing economic downturn, has exacerbated inequities in water access at a time when access is more important than ever, as hand-washing is shown to be a simple way to help ward off Covid-19.

“Right now, Congress can bring us closer to realizing water justice by stopping utility shut-offs, investing in public water infrastructure, and prioritizing people, not corporations,” she added.

Municipal water and wastewater utilities say they are facing an estimated economic impact of $30 billion since the pandemic began, arising from loss of revenue due to nonpayment of bills, and decline in commercial and industrial water usage.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents publicly owned wastewater utilities, is asking the Senate for $4.3 billion for a federal low-income assistance program and $12.5 billion to assist these utilities in gaining revenue lost from commercial and industrial losses as well as continuing service despite nonpayment of bills.

“Electricity, gas, and water services should not be luxuries for the privileged few, especially during a pandemic,” Carper said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com

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