Can you imagine going two or three days without being able to take a hot shower? Wash your hair, your hands, give your pet water, make your baby a bottle, wash your dishes, brush your teeth? Most of us don’t go a day without doing these activities. Imagine going more than a week— or having to boil water in order to bathe your children. This is the norm in Jackson, Mississippi.
“I don’t feel like everyone can understand the mental anguish this is having on people,” says Tracy Miller, a Jackson resident.
For the last two years, residents have received boil water notices almost every single month. A boil water notice is issued by the city government when water is unsafe to drink, often times boiling water can help kill off anything harmful in the water. In Jackson these notices can last weeks, sometimes even longer than a month. They've been issued so frequently in Jackson residents say that when officials say the water is safe or restored they know it is only temporary. “This is a human rights issue and a public health issue because it is a basic human right to have clean water,” says Romona Taylor Williams, a Jackson resident.
Contrary to the dominant national narrative, this has been the reality of Jackson residents well before the flood in August 2022, and it’s linked to long standing racial inequities that have led to an economic crisis and a crumbling infrastructure. After spending several days on the ground, interviewing the Mayor, and being able to speak with the Governor, these are the 5 facts every American should know about the water catastrophe in Jackson:
1. Jackson’s water issues started years before the 2022 flood.
While the current water issues in Jackson are a result of an aging water system unable to sustain recent flooding, residents say poor water quality has been an ongoing issue. Multiple residents said that Jackson has had water issues for as long as they can remember, dating back decades. In 2010, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality issued the city a $240,000 fine and required it to improve conditions at its Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant. In 2011, fines and a similar improvement order were issued for the city’s Presidential Hills Wastewater Treatment Plant. The next year, the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, fining the city $437,916 for violations of the Clean Water Act. According to the EPA “Jackson’s alleged violations include over 2,300 sanitary sewer overflows, prohibited bypasses, operation and maintenance failures, and effluent limit violations.” In February 2020 a winter storm caused equipment at the O.B. Curtis water plant to freeze leaving residents in some parts of Southern Jackson without water for up to seven weeks. In recent years water plant complications have been the result of extreme environmental conditions (freezing temperatures, flooding and excessive heat) and have broken down an already fragile waste water system. But when asked how the State's advancing its infrastructure to withstand climate change, Governor Reeves dismissed concerns stating that “those are just political buzzwords.”
2. The water quality is worse than what’s being reported.
Hundreds of children are named in a lawsuit against the city of Jackson alleging that the current and former administration have been complicit in the children’s exposure to lead. The lawsuit by New York law firm Levy Konigsberg also names the current and former directors of Jackson Public Works, the Mississippi Department of Health and Triology engineering services. The lawsuit states that children were poisoned by consuming water contaminated with lead as a result of the defendants “deliberate indifference.” While press conferences held by the Governor and press releases issued by the Mayor address the water pressure issues and address poor water quality, no officials are being transparent about the current quality of the water— meaning the boil water notices don’t identify which kinds of bacteria or other contaminants are in the water. In 2015, test results showed lead levels in the distribution system water above the action level. Additionally, a routine inspection conducted in November 2016 by Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) found inadequate application of treatment chemicals due to a failing corrosion control system at the O. B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. This information is included in an advisory notice to residents on the city of Jackson’s homepage. The EPA required City officials to correct these deficiencies; however, during monitoring periods in 2018 to 2022, they failed to consistently meet treatment technique requirements for the water system which resulted in another violation of the Lead and Copper Rule and a requirement of the City’s Optimized Corrosion Control Plan.
3. The only thing in the way of a permanent solution is politics.
There is substantial evidence of division between State and local political leaders who appear to be involved in a power struggle - a battle that’s been ongoing through multiple administrations. Governor Tate Reeves, a white republican, explicitly stated in a press conference on Monday, September 5 that he had no intention of working together with the Jackson mayor, a Black democrat. Governor Reeves is currently involved in multiple lawsuits including one where he is vying for control of the Jackson airport which is owned and operated by the city of Jackson, and another where he is accused of being involved in stealing millions of dollars in TANF funds for families in poverty. The State is also named as a co-plaintiff in the claim that was brought against the city of Jackson by the United States Government Environmental Protection Agency. The Governor has said that he will allocate up to $90 million dollars in federal AARPA funds but this money is contingent on a 1:1 dollar match from the city of Jackson. Council Member Aaron Banks said that the match requirement is holding the city back from being able to access much needed funding to repair the city’s water infrastructure. “The federal government should prohibit a match requirement for federal dollars,” said Council member Banks. This requirement increases disparities while creating barriers to funding for the communities that need it most. For example, if a municipality has $1,000 in repairs but only has $100 available for repairs they are only eligible for a $100 match in federal funds. But a city that has $1,000,000 in the bank and requests $10,000 for a $20,000 repair will get $10,000, not because they need it the most but because they have that size of a match to offer. During a recent interview with Mayor Lumumba, he said he believes that if this were another, predominately white, city in Mississippi the State response would be different.
“The last legislative session we didn’t get anything essentially. I stated then that there were some racial concerns there. I’m not shy about saying those things. I’m not letting anybody off the hook but at the same time I have to keep my focus toward this recovery. The mission is to get safe drinking water restored to the residents,” said Mayor Lumumba during an exclusive interview.
4. Jackson’s economic crisis is as bad as its water.
Since the 90’s Jackson has seen mass divestment as a result of white residents migrating to nearby suburbs. Thirty years ago the city was a little more than 50% white, now it’s over 80% Black with a smaller population. As a result of the mass migration the tax-base in Jackson is shrinking.
In the last decade residents have been charged for water they can’t use, and billed inconsistently and excessively ranging from $1,000 to $34,000. The city won a class action lawsuit in 2019 against Siemens Inc. for the failed billing system it provided the city. “My primary concern is the economic impact that these inconsistent and high water bills are having on the residents of Jackson being that Jackson has such a high and disproportionate poverty level,” says Romona Taylor Williams, Jackson resident for the last 7 years.
“The immediate crisis in which the State has come in and taken over the O.B Curtis water plant is a direct result of the lack of operators and lack of staff, and the lack of mechanics at O.B. Curtis,” said Governor Reeves at a September 5 press conference. According to city records the understaffing is largely due to lack of funding. The city’s poverty has resulted in a series of economic hurdles for residents. Each time there is a water boil notice or water service is cut off entirely, residents and business owners encounter unexpected, non-reimbursable expenses. Restaurant owners can’t afford the added expense of providing safe drinking water. Parents are losing pay because they have to care for kids being sent home from school. And those kids aren’t able to continue their education at home. According to broadband research 41% of those living in Mississippi have no Internet connectivity, the highest rate of those without Internet access in the country.
“Water is not free,” said Governor Reeves who announced that he’s considering the privatization of the Jackson water management system which could take up to $1 billion dollars to overhaul if the 1920 piping infrastructure containing lead is replaced. Reeves says that despite being unreliable, the O.B. Curtis Water Plant is only 30 years old and therefore the State has no intention on replacing what he says can be repaired, but residents are losing confidence. “They are putting a bandaid on an issue that needs surgery. At this point that bandaid needs to be ripped off and we just need a whole new system,” says Tracy Miller, a Jackson resident.
5. The lack of national urgency over Jackson’s water catastrophe indicates our nation's tolerance of Black suffering
Imagine your favorite American city that’s composed predominantly of white people; what would the response be if that city endured 10 days of unreliable, unsafe water? Do you imagine that the nation would be outraged? Would federal intervention and relief be provided quickly to rectify the situation? We should be asking ourselves why our nation lacks that same standard for quality living conditions when the people impacted are Black. Jacksonians have not only had unreliable, unsafe water for ten days but for over ten years! The biggest slap in the face to Black residents isn’t just that they are expected to tolerate these living conditions but they are expected to pay for it, too. “Are we going to get a water bill at the end of the month? If we do, should we pay that water bill when we haven’t been able to bathe in that water or drink it?,” asks Miller. Clean water and sanitation is acknowledged as a human right by the United Nations, when will America see it that way, too?
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