“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” is how the ongoing crisis of not having access to clean drinking water is being felt throughout Jackson, Mississippi, after decades of politics, neglect, natural disasters, and inadequate funding have together undermined the quality of the city’s water supply.
Still struggling to overcome last fall’s water crisis, below-freezing temperatures on Christmas Eve caused pipes to burst and other related infrastructure to break down. And for the third time in two years, residents are again advised to boil water, depend upon local, state, and federal officials for potable and non-potable water deliveries, and endure indignities not worthy of a state capital.
“When the temperatures drop as low as they do, when we have hundreds of miles of pipe that we have, then there’s no way in that span of time to deal with that,” Jackson’s Mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, said during a press conference shortly after the breaks. “We’re calling on residents to call in if you see a leak, if you see a break, large leaks, you know that are on large thoroughfares, please let our crews know so that those repairs can be made,” he said in the immediate wake of the local emergency.
Stating that major leaks have been spotted in and around Jackson and that city and contract crews have been fanning out throughout the community to repair them, including fire hydrants, Ted Henifin hired by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to oversee the repairs, said the leaks are a small part of a much larger problem.
“We frankly don’t know where the water is being lost,” said Mr. Henifin, a third-party administrator hired by the EPA to help solve Jackson’s overall water crisis. He described how modern technology was being used to detect the source. “We’re working with the health department about putting some drones in the air this evening to do some thermal imaging (and) to see if we can see some warm spots somewhere in town,” he said.
According to WAPT 16 News, Mayor Lumumba declared a local emergency but didn’t say how long the emergency would last. What started as a low water pressure issue on Christmas Eve became an issue of no water at all on Christmas Day, making an inconvenience for some and a great hardship for others.
Mr. Henifin said the problem is not with the O.B. Curtis Water Plant itself but is more with not knowing where the treated water is now going. “It’s going somewhere that we haven’t figured out, it’s got to be distribution system leaks or breaks, and we’ve got folks out looking. Our gut feel is that it must be someplace that people aren’t noticing,” he said.
Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former EPA official and a founding member of the Office of Environmental Justice, told The Final Call that crumbling and nonexistent infrastructure, a lack of investment, and historical injustices toward Jackson’s majority Black population, have together contributed to a perfect storm of what is now a dysfunctional if not defunct public waterworks system.
“We’ve known some of the historical things that have gone on in Mississippi where Black communities were seen as less valuable, so in many instances, there hasn’t been the same level of resource investment as there has been in other communities,” Dr. Ali said, “There has been some investment over the years, but there was always a greater need and that was not met and now, with the climate crisis, things are being exacerbated whether you’re talking about the flooding that has gone on that overwhelmed the system or the freezing. (Jackson) is 150,000 plus folks, primarily Black folks in a dire situation,” he said.
According to the Associated Press, a Mississippi environmental regulator recently denied claims leveled by the NAACP that the state agency he leads discriminated against the capital city of Jackson in its distribution of federal funds for wastewater treatment.
Jackson is set to receive nearly $800 million in federal funds for its water system, the bulk of which comes from the $1.7 trillion spending bill that Congress passed in December, the news agency continued.
The NAACP has charged that for over 25 years, Jackson received funds from an important federal program only three times, and that when Jackson tried to fund improvements itself, those efforts were repeatedly blocked by state political leaders, the AP reported.
The EPA announced Oct. 20 of last year that it was investigating whether Mississippi state agencies discriminated against the state’s majority-Black capital city by refusing to fund improvements to the water system. EPA Administrator Michael Regan has visited Jackson multiple times and has said “longstanding discrimination” has contributed to the decline of the city’s water system, according to news reports.
The federal agency could withhold money from Mississippi if it finds wrongdoing or if the state agencies don’t cooperate with the investigation, the EPA could refer the case to the Department of Justice.
“We have to set a 21st century paradigm and set of actions to address the economic opportunities that could exist in Jackson, Mississippi, both in local businesses, mom and pop shops all the way up to larger types of business opportunities,” Dr. Ali explained. “When we don’t have strong water infrastructure, it sends a message across your state and across the country that this may not be a place where a business wants to sit.”
There are other examples Dr. Ali explained. “In Flint, Michigan, we know that a number of the businesses, the larger business industries, the car industries, that were associated with Flint, decided to move away from the water source that folks had to utilize and drink because it was going to affect their manufacturing processes. Now, we come to 2022 and 2023, where businesses have had to shut down because of the water crisis that was going on there,” he said.
“So, if I am a businessman and I’m thinking about locations across the country, where I might site expansion of my business or a new business, that would probably give me pause because I would be worried if there’s been this lack of focus that it would definitely impact my business which would impact the bottom line,” Dr. Ali said.
“And we know in the African American community, small businesses are the way we often get started, and is where many of our ownership opportunities currently lie.”