New US Legislation Will Protect Against Utility Shutoffs

Essential to Smooth Recovery

28 May 2021 by The Water Diplomat
Washington D.C., United States

Jeff Merkley outside the Capitol building

A new bill to temporarily prevent disconnection of household electric, water and broadband services nationwide during the coronavirus crisis has been introduced to the US Senate.

Under the Maintaining Access to Essential Services Act of 2021 brought by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, water and wastewater providers, electric utilities and broadband providers would each be granted $10 million USD in low-interest loans in exchange for a moratorium on shutoffs.

A growing number of households across America are at risk of losing essential utility services, including heating and water, due to mounting utility debt.

The loans would be forgivable for publicly owned, nonprofit water and electric utilities and small internet providers 2 years after the end of the pandemic if they forgive household utility debt without disconnecting customers. Private utilities and large broadband providers would be eligible for 50% forgiveness on the loan under the same terms.

Jean Su, energy justice director at the Centre of Biological Diversity explained: “This bill is vital to address the reality that millions of families have been plunged into poverty because of COVID-19.”

“Mounting utility debt digs that hole deeper and threatens their access to basic human rights of power, water and broadband access. Any notion of building back better must include this bill, which stops the immediate bleeding of utility shutoffs. We also need greater infrastructure investment in community and rooftop-solar solutions to stop the energy shutoff crisis in the long-term.”

Utility shutoffs are widening inequalities which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Merkley. Being cut off from the internet makes it harder for people to sign up for their COVID vaccine or to find information regarding their eligibility – therefore preventing the equitable distribution of this lifesaving injection and effective recovery from the pandemic.

A study conducted by Cornell University in April 2021, revealed that 9,000 lives could have been saved and approximately half a million COVID cases in America prevented through a national US moratorium on water shutoffs. The study found that those without water access are unable to carry out sufficient sanitation in accordance with guidance published by the United States Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the spread of the virus.

Statistics published in a Centre for Biological Diversity report revealed that more than half a million households across 10 US states have been subjected to utility shutoffs, with some utility companies reporting disconnections for up to 6% of their customers.

Alissa Weinman, associate campaign director at Corporate Accountability said: “Everyone should have access to vital utilities — especially during a pandemic and economic crisis. And eliminating utility debt is an important step toward realizing that future. What's more, this bill would direct sorely needed federal funds toward our water infrastructure. Direct, federal investment into our water systems helps ensure they stay in the hands of the public, not corporations."

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