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Manchin's Message from the Hill to the Mountains: Invest In America's Infrastructure, Not Afghanistan's

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For nearly two weeks, hundreds of thousands of West Virginians have been struggling to recover in the aftermath of massive storms that left nearly a third of our state without electricity. At the peak of the outage, FEMA estimates that 688,000 West Virginians didn't have power, and hundreds of thousands of people were suffering through 100 degree heat and had to throw away all of the food in their refrigerators and freezers.

While our National Guard and first responders did a superb job of keeping people safe, this storm served as a stark reminder of just how vulnerable and inadequate our infrastructure is -- and how much we depend on it. Up and down the East Coast, our electric grid was crippled by the storm.

The fact is, we have to invest in our nation's infrastructure. Power outages cost this country between $79 and $164 billion a year. That's because on top of powering our hospitals, nursing homes and schools, reliable energy underpins our economy and keeps Americans at work.

But rather than making these critical investments here at home, it seems we are making them in other countries.

This week, I was appalled to learn that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is making a massive energy infrastructure investment in another country by awarding a $93.6 million dollar contract to provide reliable power in Afghanistan. In my time as a United States Senator, I have not seen a starker example of misplaced priorities. It's wrong to invest in reliable power for the Afghan people when tens of thousands of West Virginians have been without power for nearly two weeks because our infrastructure is so vulnerable.

According to the Congressional Research Service, American taxpayers have already spent more than $89 billion dollars on infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, including the costs of reconstruction assistance, diplomatic security, and activities by non-Department of Defense agencies. This is in addition to the $551 billion dollars we've spent on military operations.

Those numbers don't even include Iraq, where we've spent at least $5 billion on electrical systems and $61 billion dollars total on infrastructure projects, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

And still -- when you take a closer look at the project that was announced this week, the facts are even more disturbing.

The Army Times reported that the Corps awarded $93.6 million to improve electrical transmission from the Kajaki Dam power station throughout the Helmand Province, to include burying transmission lines and providing back-up generators. But, believe it or not, the people of the United States already paid to build the Kajaki Dam Power House in the 1970s, but the project has not been properly maintained. What makes us think that it will be maintained now?

And this is only one small piece of an even more costly contract to bring electricity to southern Afghanistan. The $93.6 million dollar contract is the first of six integrated components collectively called the Kandahar Helmand Power Project, a U.S.A.I.D. initiative to expand the electrical distribution system of two provinces in Southern Afghanistan with a combined estimated population of 1.7 million -- just short of West Virginia's 1.8 million people.

It's one thing to help other countries with loans that will get them back on their feet so they can repay their debts. It's another thing entirely to pour billions of taxpayer dollars into another country for a decade with no chance of any repayments to the taxpayers of the United States of America.

I can't say it enough: if you build a bridge in West Virginia, we won't blow it up. If you build a school, we won't burn it down. In fact, we will be very appreciative. And if you help us invest in a more reliable electric system, we will use that power to make this country stronger, to power this nation's economy, and to provide good-paying jobs.

The scope of the problem with West Virginia's electricity infrastructure is tremendous. According to the National Energy Technology Laboratory, power outages in West Virginia take four times longer to fix than the national average.

If we modernize our grid to make it more flexible and reliable, we can make a return on investment of up to $6 for every dollar we invest, according to studies from both the Electric Power Research Institute and the National Energy Technology Laboratory. Instead of investing that money in Afghanistan, doesn't it just make sense to invest it here at home? It's time to rebuild America and our infrastructure, not Afghanistan. Let's make our country strong again.


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