Federal rules stall funding for rural plumbing projects


ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Millions of dollars in government funds for Alaska rural water and sewer projects are stalled by an impasse between state and federal officials.

The $32 million holdup affects projects in 24 villages.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development has provided one large grant to the state for several years. Now the agency wants to provide individual grants for each project, said acting director Chad Padgett.

The state may not have the staff to handle the extra paperwork and other requirements, according to Bill Griffith, facilities program manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Both sides said they're close to a deal that will get the funds flowing.

Meanwhile, building materials are sitting on the ground in one village and construction has been delayed until the fall in another village.

By now, indoor plumbing should have been installed in the homes of 10 families in Mekoryuk, a Bering Sea island village, said Lynn Marino, with the state's Village Safe Water program. The homes are part of an $800,000 project targeted for completion this winter, she said. Now, the families will have to wait until at least September.

The project includes water and sewer upgrades to 40 homes in the village. The homes are part of a system that's outdated and expensive to maintain, said Hultman Kiokun, with the Mekoryuk tribal government.

Thirty-four percent of Alaska Native villages do not have flush toilets and running water, according to Tom Hennessy, director of Arctic investigations for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hennessy said infants and children in villages without those services are hospitalized for respiratory infections at rates far exceeding the national average. Hospitalizations for skin infections are also much higher, he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture began providing the Rural Alaska Village Grant as one block grant in 2000, Padgett said.

Alaska usually gets the money at the start of the federal budget year in October or November, he said. This year, the agency plans to provide $23 million. Another $9 million in matching state grants is frozen because that money is on hold.

Padgett said the change requiring separate grants for individual villages was prompted by a 2004 internal review.

The agency now wants more financial documentation for each village. The goal is to discern if villages can shoulder some project costs, ensure communities, maintain their water and sewer systems, and get other information, he said.

The agency has been ready to disperse the individual grants since late December, but the state hasn't applied, Padgett said.

The new grant system could mean substantially more work for state workers, said Griffith.

Padgett said he was hopeful the two sides will find common ground.