a year later Water system failed in Jackson, Mississippi during heavy flooding — one of the highest-profile municipal public health crises in recent US history — officials are telling residents their water is safe to drink. But these claims have failed to restore Jacksonians’ faith in the system: Last week, two local advocacy organizations filed an emergency petition with the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, seeking interim relief from persistently poor water quality and public participation. A greater degree of was requested. There are plans to upgrade the infrastructure.

The petition follows a press conference in mid-June during which Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba announced a new initiative to distribute water filters to customers of the city’s beleaguered water system.

The federal government has been generous in providing significant funding to repair the system, he said, “but it won’t matter if we don’t restore confidence within our residents,” many of whom were still buying bottled water. Providing filters to particularly vulnerable people, such as pregnant women and families with small children, could help persuade residents to use their taps again, he argued.

The speech landed him in federal court a week later, where a judge expressed concern that his comments contradict progress that has been made since the court ordered a third party to oversee the city’s water system after the treatment plants. hired Ted Hennifin’s manager. Failed last August.

“There is no health risk from drinking the water that I know of,” Hennifin told the court On 21st June. “We really need to be careful with the messaging we send about water.”

These reassurances seem contrary to the experiences of many Jackson residents. In court testimony and interviews with Grist, residents described old odors and discoloration in their tap water that persisted after the water manager’s comment in June. In the petition filed last week, local groups also claim that officials have failed to adequately account for multiple sources of lead and bacteria that could contaminate the city’s water supply.

“Due to inadequate corrosion control, underestimation of historical lead contamination risk, failure to identify locations of lead service lines, and continued delays in rehabilitating microbial remediation processes, Jacksonians have no confidence in this. [Henifin’s] sweeping statement that Jackson’s tap water is safe for everyone,” Read petition, (EPA has not yet responded publicly to the petition; when contacted to comment on this story, Lumumba’s office referred Grist to Hennifin, who did not respond to requests for comment.)

jackson made National headlines last August Torrential rain caused pumps at its main water treatment facility to fail, prompting local authorities to distribute bottled water to the city’s 180,000 people. But the problem dates back long before that high-profile incident. Jackson residents have endured low-pressure faucets and rolling notices for years recommending that they boil their water before use. In March 2020, the EPA issued an emergency order There are warnings that there may be elevated levels of bacteria such as E. coli in the water system. four years before that, state officials Elevated lead levels detected in drinking water.

The roots of the problem lie in decades of disinvestment and discriminatory neglect. After Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which strengthened the integration of schools and public places, white residents began to leave the city. Population of white residents since 1980 dropped it From 52 percent to 15 percent. Today, Jackson is more than 80 percent black and 1 in 4 people live in poverty, according to statistics from the US Census.

The shrinking tax base has made it difficult for city officials to make much-needed repairs on the city’s water system, parts of which are more than a century old. Donald Cohen, executive director of the nonprofit research group In the Public Interest, told Grist that many poor cities across the country struggle to upgrade their water systems because residents can’t afford high utility rates, and taxes The base is insufficient to supplement that revenue.

In Jackson, matters are made worse by growing animosity between Republican Governor Tate Reeves and Democratic Mayor Lumumba. Before becoming governor, Reeves exercised his power as state treasurer. stop attempts To update the infrastructure of the capital city. As governor, he regularly rejected legislation Which will raise money to improve the water system. (The governor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

“There is a political component to what’s going on in Jackson,” Cohen said. “It is a red war on a blue town, and it is a white war on a black town. Both these things are true.

After Jackson’s pumps failed the previous August, a federal court appointed Hennifin, an engineer by training, to oversee the city’s water system. Lumumba has called Hennifin “instrumental” In offering his expertise to repair the water system, and the attorneys Grist spoke with, he said he expected the case to improve when he came into the picture. However, he soon felt left out of the process and became frustrated by the lack of transparency.

“It looks like you’re giving all this power to one person without involving the people here in the process,” said Brooke Floyd, co-director of the Jackson People’s Assembly at the People’s Advocacy Institute, one of the organizations. included in the petition. During a public meeting in March, Hennifin Said that the court had given him “a really broad authority, perhaps even more than I would have given myself.” Earlier this month, Hennifin was also put in charge of the city’s sewer system at least 215 leaks Those who pour dirty water on the streets of some mohallas.

In their letter to the EPA, the petitioners allege that Hennifin has repeatedly failed to meaningfully engage the community, resulting in decisions that go against the wishes of Jacksonians, such as the direction of privatization of the water system. step into Earlier this year, he Incorporated JXN Water, Inc., this body was formed to improve the city’s water system and effectively protect it from public disclosure laws. Research Has shown Private water systems have better water quality on average than public utilities, but they tend to be more expensive and more opaque to customers, both factors that could harm officials’ efforts to restore trust in the Jackson community.

Water Treatment Facility in Jackson, MS
Curtis water treatment plant on August 31, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. Brad West via Getty Images

Part of the petition addresses Hennifin’s statements in court in June about the water being safe to drink. Floyd told Grist that the same week that Hennifin made these claims, the water in his tap had discolored and “stuff was floating in it.” His family has to rely on large jugs of water that they buy from Office Depot – a luxury, he added, that many families cannot afford.

one in Announcement In a petition submitted to the EPA last week, Jackson resident Danielle Holmes said that every few months, there’s a week when her tap water turns brown and smells like eggs. During a court hearing in July, another resident said her and her son’s eczema improved when she left town. Shemeka Cavett, who has lived in Jackson her entire life, told Grist that throughout the summer, she fills two garbage bags a week with empty water bottles. Sometimes, she used to say, her tap water is the color of tea. When she washes her face with it, she breaks down.

“I don’t believe it even after boiling it,” he said. “If the color of the water is different, you can’t get it out.”

The petitioners have written that the poor quality of water can arise from a number of sources. Old hookups and poor plumbing in the city’s water distribution network may be causing some neighborhoods’ tap water to leak, but a lack of access to sampling data has kept residents in the dark about the degree of their potential exposure. According to Hennifin’s last quarterly report, the city’s main water treatment plants still did not have optimal corrosion control equipment, which is an important safeguard against lead contamination.

Last month, JXN Water Inc. informed of The state was informed of two water quality violations at that facility. In 2020, EPA released an emergency order Stating that Jackson’s water system has failed to meet federal filtration and disinfection standards, increasing the risk of bacteria such as E. coli and giardia in local taps. In its latest report, Henifin states that work on the local filtration system is ongoing, but that no date for completion has been established.

Makani Themba, a local activist, said the lack of access to clean water disrupts almost every aspect of life. When the water quality is low, people are often afraid to take a shower or wash their hands. a recent study Boiling water alerts in Jackson are related to high rates of unexcused absences from schools. pregnant people and children particularly vulnerable exposure to lead, while the elderly and people with weakened immunity are at higher risk of microbial contamination. The advocates’ petition suggests that in view of these risks, residents with water problems should be given bottled water or a temporary rehabilitation fund.

Themba told Grist, “Water is life.” “That is why it was important to file this emergency petition to get some relief from what Jackson residents are going through.”

Federal relief is on the horizon, but it won’t be enough to meet the needs of residents. In June, President Biden announced Jackson would receive $115 million to improve its water system. The money is part of a broader $600 million package approved by Congress in the latest federal budget. The money will be used for a range of improvements, including fixing leaks in pipes and ensuring adequate pumping to maintain safe levels of pressure in taps. The distribution of funds under the Safe Drinking Water Act will be overseen by the EPA. but Mayor Lumumba have guessed that it would take about $2 billion to completely repair the city’s water system.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan to visit Jackson in November 2021 “Journey to Justice Tour,” A survey of communities across the South dealing with environmental justice issues, a term that refers to the disproportionate levels of pollution experienced by low-income people and communities of color. Floyd recalled meeting Reagan during the tour and said his visit was an opportunity for places like Jackson to build a platform to hold regulators accountable. But now, he said, the question is whether they will get the job done.

Is the federal government’s action “going to be just demonstrative, or is it going to really deliver environmental justice?” she wondered out loud. “It’s really up to the community and people to make sure they follow through.”

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