May 25, 2024

In the summer of 2022, heavy rainfall damaged a water treatment plant in the city of Jackson, Mississippi, causing a high-profile public health crisis. Republican Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency, as thousands of residents were told to boil their water before drinking it. For some, the pressure in their taps was so low that they could not flush their toilets and were forced to rely on bottled water for weeks.

Many of the city’s 150,000 residents were wary that their local government could get clean water running through their pipes again. State officials had a history of undermining efforts to repair Jackson’s beleaguered infrastructure, and the City Council, for its part, lacked the money to make the fixes on its own. So when the federal government stepped in that fall, allocated funding and hired an engineer to manage the city’s water system, there was reason to believe that change might finally be near.

But as the months wore on, hope turned to frustration. Federally appointed engineer Ted Henifin has begun taking steps to have the city’s water system run by a private company, despite Mayor Chokwe Lumumba’s objections. Advocates’ repeated requests for data and other information about Jackson’s drinking water have gone unanswered, according to local activist Makani Themba, and despite Henifin’s assurances before a federal judge that the water is safe to drink, brown liquid still has some faucets poured out. Faced with these conditions, a group of advocates sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency last July asking them to be involved in overhauling the city’s water system.

“Jackson residents have weathered many storms, literally and figuratively, over the past few years,” they wrote in the letter. “We have the right and responsibility to be fully involved in the redevelopment of our water and sewage system.” The letter was followed by an emergency petition to the EPA containing similar requests for transparency and engagement.

Earlier this month, a federal judge granted the proponents of their request, which include two community organizations, the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign and the People’s Advocacy Group, are parties to an EPA lawsuit against the city of Jackson for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act. A seat at the table of the legal proceedings, the advocates hope, will enable the city’s residents to have a say in the rebuilding of their infrastructure and also fend off privatisation. The saga in Jackson reflects a broader problem affecting public utilities across the country, with cash-strapped local governments turning to corporations to make much-needed repairs to water treatment plants, distribution pipes and storage systems, a course that often lacks transparency. restrict and box local residents. from the decision making.

“This is not a uniquely Jackson problem,” said Brooke Floyd, associate director of the Jackson People’s Assembly at the People’s Advocacy Institute. “We need ways for all these cities that need infrastructure repairs to get clean water to their communities.”

The roots of Jackson’s water crisis lie in decades of disinvestment and neglect. Like many other mid-sized cities across the country, such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis, Jackson declined after white, middle-class residents moved to the suburbs, taking tax dollars away from infrastructure increasingly in need of repair. Between 1980 and 2020, Jackson’s population declined by about 25 percent. Today, the city is more than 80 percent black, compared to 50 percent in the 1980s. A quarter of Jackson’s residents live below the poverty line, with most households earning less than $40,000 a year, compared to $49,000 for the state overall.

Over the decades, antagonism between the Republican state government and the Democratic and Black-led local government created additional obstacles to updating Jackson’s water and sewer infrastructure. A Title VI civil rights complaint that the NAACP filed with the EPA in September 2022 accused Governor Reeves and the state legislature of systematically depriving Jackson of the funds it needs to operate and maintain its water facilities in a safe and reliable manner. The biggest problem, the NAACP argued, was that the state rejected the city’s proposal for a one percent sales tax to pay for infrastructure updates and divert funds from the EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund away from the capital.

“Despite Jackson’s status as the most populous city in Mississippi, state agencies have allocated federal funds” from the EPA program three times in the past 25 years, the complaint states. “Meanwhile, the state poured funds into majority-white areas in Mississippi despite their less acute needs.”

In the absence of adequate resources from state and local government, Jacksonians have learned to fend for themselves, Floyd told Grist. At the height of the water crisis in 2022, federal dollars helped fund the distribution of bottled water to thousands of residents, but when the money dried up, people organized to secure drinking water for households still dealing with smelly, discolored liquid that from their taps. When Henifin began posting boil water notices on a smartphone app that some found difficult to use, one resident set up a separate community texting service. Floyd said these problems continue for some residents today.

“There is this feeling that we have to provide for each other because no one is coming,” Floyd said. “We know the state is not going to help us.”

Henifin told a federal judge that he has taken a number of steps to improve Jackson’s water quality. The private company he founded, JXN Water, hired contractors to update the main water plant’s corrosion control and conducted tests for lead and bacteria such as E. Coli. But residents and advocates point out that while the water coming out of the system may be clean, the city is home to more than 150 miles of dilapidated pipes that can leach toxic chemicals into the water supply. Advocates want the city to replace them and conduct testing in neighborhoods instead of just near the treatment facility, changes the city has federal money to make. In December 2022, the federal government $600 million awarded to Jackson for repairs to his water system.

But the worry is that this money will be spent on other things. Henifin is the one handling the federal funds. By court order, he has the authority to enter into contracts, make payments and change the rates and fees charged to consumers.

Themba, the local activist, said Henifin has not responded to residents’ demands for additional testing and access to monitoring data that already exists. Because JXN Water is a private company, it is not subject to public disclosure laws that require this information to be shared with the public. (Henifin did not respond to Grist’s requests for comment.)

Themba points to Pittsburgh as an example of a place where residents fought for privatization of their water system and secured a more democratic public utility. In 2012, faced with a lack of state and federal funding, the city turned over its water system to Veolia, an international waste and water management giant based in France. Over the following years, the publicly traded company opted for cost-cutting measures that causing lead to enter the water supply of tens of thousands of inhabitants. A local campaign ensued, and advocates eventually won a commitment from the city government to return the water system to city controlCK? and give the public a voice in the system’s governance.

“What we have learned from across the country is that privatization does not work for the community,” said Themba. “We want what works.”

The court order naming Henifin as Jackson’s water manager in 2022 does not outline what will happen once his four-year contract expires in 2026. Last month, the Mississippi Senate passed a bill it would put Jackson’s water in the hands of the state after Henifin resigned, a move the manager recently said he supports and which Jackson’s city mayor strongly opposes. That bill soon failed in the House without a voice. Now that they are part of the lawsuit, advocates hope they will have a chance to influence the outcome, before it is too late.

“Jackson residents have felt left out of the equation for so long,” Floyd said. “If we lose it, it’s a big deal.”

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