Jackson, Mississippi water crisis continues despite GOP governor’s declaration
Bennie Hudson, 65, executive director of the Mississippi Faith-Based Coalition for Community Renewal, demonstrates how low the water pressure was at her Jackson, Miss., home Thursday morning, Sept. 1, 2022. Hudson boils any tap water she uses due to the city's longstanding water problems. | Rogelio V. Solis/AP

JACKSON, Miss. – The Jackson city water crisis is far from over, say city officials and community activists in response to the declaration by Republican Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves that water pressure has been restored and is safe to drink.

Reeves lifted the six-week boil-water emergency on Sept. 15 and announced the state would stop distributing bottled water to Jackson residents, a city of 180,000, 80% of whom are African American. He also insisted his emergency order gave him authority over Jackson’s water services and suggested he would move to privatize the system.

“We’ve been here before where we’ve remediated water pressure issues and lifted boiled water notices,” said Democratic Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba last week after workers restored water pressure. “We’ve had many boiled water emergencies and then when the looming threat is over, those in leadership positions suddenly back away and leave us to contend with a fragile water system. It’s not a matter of if this will happen again, but when.”

Sure enough, one day after Reeves’s announcement, a boil-water alert went into effect for parts of Jackson. On Sept. 19, workers evacuated the O. B. Curtis Plant, Jackson’s primary water treatment facility, after a chlorine leak was detected.

In addition, the Department of Public Health warned pregnant people and young children to be cautious before using or consuming tap water because of the high lead levels in the water. Jackson residents have endured four boil-water emergencies since June.

Lumumba and community advocacy organizations have sharply clashed with Reeves and the GOP legislature over the crisis. They accuse them of deliberately divesting the city’s infrastructure and ongoing privatization attempts.

Brown water spews from the tap in a Jackson resident’s home more than six weeks after a boil order first came into effect. | via YouTube

“This is an extremely dangerous move for the residents of Jackson,” said Danyelle Holmes of the Poor People’s Campaign and Rapid Response Coalition, a partnership between the city and 30 advocacy organizations.

“Extreme racist policies have hijacked our city and state and put lives in danger. Even before this crisis the water wasn’t safe,” said Holmes. “This is decades of neglect to allocate the resources to the city of Jackson, the capitol of Mississippi, the poorest state in the country. It’s not just happening here, it’s happening across the state.”

Even though the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) is ending distributing water, the PPC and RRC, which have been distributing bottled water for the past two years, will continue delivering it to residents. The groups are planning a mass action on Sept. 26 to demand more funds from the state and federal government while opposing privatization.

“We are saying the water is not clean until it meets all the EPA standards,” Holmes said.

The Jackson water crisis is decades in the making. It results from systemic racism in state financing, which divested the city’s infrastructure and schools following white flight to the suburbs, and cuts in federal spending on water systems dating back to the 1970s.

The water treatment system was shut down in February 2021 when a winter storm froze pipes and damaged equipment. Boiled water notices and discolored and cloudy water have been standard for decades.

The latest crisis was caused by failures at both water treatment plants from a record-setting rainfall in late August that led to the Pearl River flooding parts of the city and overwhelming the system. Water pressure in the system dropped and became dangerously contaminated.

Declared a state emergency

Residents of the Golden Keys Senior Living apartments flock to a trailer full of water being delivered by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 1, 2022. | Steve Helber / AP

Reeves declared a state emergency. Then President Biden declared an emergency on Sept. 6, dispatching FEMA to help restore the water treatment plant and administer emergency aid in coordination with state and city efforts. Federal officials, including EPA administrator Michael Regan, have visited the city and the EPA inspector general launched an investigation into the causes of the crisis.

Environmental justice activists say the crisis is not solved and will only worsen because the aging and fragile infrastructure cannot cope with more frequent extreme weather events caused by the climate crisis.

Lumumba said the city appreciates the federal emergency funding to get the system up and running again. But instead of the piecemeal fixes made after each crisis, Lumumba calls for replacing the 100-year-old system, which his administration estimates will cost $1 billion. The city and state will receive millions under the American Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act, but that won’t be enough to address the crisis or rebuild the system.

Reeves blamed city officials for the crisis and made no secret of his ultimate aim, remove home rule from Jackson and privatize the system. State officials have already met with potential vendors, and there are indications legislative leaders want to call a special session to rush approval through.

Lumumba and community organizations adamantly oppose the state takeover because of the history of racism leading to unequal treatment and neglect of Jackson. They say the privatization of water, which they believe is a public good, will result in service cuts and price hikes for the city’s residents, many of whom live in dire poverty.

They accuse the Reeves administration and white GOP legislative leaders of engaging in a long-term deliberate racist disinvestment in the city. The state then uses the subsequent crises as an excuse to privatize city assets. In addition to the water treatment plant, the state has attempted to privatize the Jackson municipal airport.

The city has good reason to be wary of privatization. The $17 billion global corporation Siemens convinced the city to award it a contract to upgrade the water meter and billing services. The city passed a $200 million bond issue to pay for it and ended up being ripped off and in worse shape. Jackson sued Siemens, but it will be years before the city can pay off the bond debt.

Reeves claimed the city administration lacked a plan to fix the system, but city officials and community organizations see this as a ploy to divert from the state’s responsibility for creating the crisis. Not only does the city have a plan, Lumumba told journalist Roland Martin, but he and Jackson mayors preceding him have submitted plans that the state refused even to recognize.

Lumumba said ninety percent of Jackson residents voted to “tax themselves” an additional one percent to raise revenues to make urgent repairs on the water treatment infrastructure. But a commission set up by the state legislature, which must approve all such taxes, refused to support it.

A water tower emblazoned with the City of Jackson, Miss., official seal looms over a north Jackson neighborhood, Aug. 31, 2022. A recent flood worsened Jackson’s longstanding water system problems and the state Health Department ordered Mississippi’s capital city under a boil-water notice in late July. | Rogelio V. Solis / AP

Reeves also vetoed an infrastructure bill passed in 2020 that would have contributed millions toward modernizing Jackson and the state water treatment systems. The state had a $1 billion surplus due mainly to tax receipts collected from Jackson, the state’s largest city, and Federal aid to Mississippi, which makes up 40% of the state budget.

Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the nation and ranks third in how much the state budget relies on federal aid, despite the rejection of Medicaid expansion and the accompanying funds. The state education system has been underfunded by $279 million yearly and $3.3 billion since 2008.

The Reeves administration has been dogged by scandal. During his time as Lieutenant Governor, Reeves pressured the Department of Transportation to spend $2 million to build a frontage road built between his mansion and a shopping mall while at the same time opposing state funding for infrastructure needs.

Now Reeves finds himself embroiled in a new scandal. Reports accuse him of obstructing an investigation into the diversion of $77 million from the TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) to his cronies, including ex-football player Brett Favre, a professional wrestler, a horse farm and a volleyball complex, and state officials.

The Jackson water crisis and similar crises in Flint, Baltimore, Chicago, St. Joseph, Mich., Salt Lake, Hawaii, and other cities are canaries in the coal mine. They warn of a far more profound and broader nationwide drinking and wastewater crisis that will require enormous federal resources.


CONTRIBUTOR

John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He served as national chair of the Communist Party USA from 2014 to 2019. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Albuquerque and attended Antioch College. He currently lives in Chicago where he is an avid swimmer, cyclist, runner, and dabbler in guitar and occasional singer in a community chorus.

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