ABOVE PHOTO: A trickle of water comes out of the faucet at Mary Gaines’ Golden Keys Senior Living apartment in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 1, 2022. The federal government will put $600 million toward repairing the troubled water system in Mississippi’s capital city…a project that the mayor has said could cost billions of dollars. Funding for Jackson, Miss., water is included in a $1.7 trillion federal spending bill that passed the Senate on Thursday, Dec. 22, and the House on Friday, Dec. 23. President Joe Biden is expected to sign it into law. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
By Emily Wagster Pettus
JACKSON, Miss. — The federal government will put $600 million toward repairing the troubled water system in Mississippi’s capital city — a project that the mayor has said could cost billions of dollars.
Funding for Jackson water is included in a $1.7 trillion federal spending bill that passed the Senate last Thursday and the House last Friday. President Joe Biden is expected to sign it into law.
“As families begin to gather for the holiday season, today’s action providing emergency funding to address the fundamental need of safe drinking water for every household in Jackson should be celebrated as a promise of equitable infrastructure services for all families everywhere,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who lives in Jackson, said in a statement Friday.
Jackson is a majority-Black city of nearly 150,000, with about 25% of residents living in poverty.
The city has had water woes for years, and its system nearly collapsed in late August after heavy rainfall flooded the Pearl River and exacerbated problems at the main water treatment plant. Most of Jackson lost running water for several days, and people had to wait in lines for water to drink, cook, bathe and flush toilets.
Since late July, people in the city had been advised to boil water before consuming it because health officials had found cloudy water that could cause illness. That advisory remained in place until mid-September.
In a federal complaint Sept. 27, the NAACP said Mississippi officials “all but assured” a drinking water calamity by depriving Jackson of badly needed funds to upgrade its infrastructure.
The EPA announced Oct. 20 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 been to Jackson multiple times for meetings about the water.
In early November, state officials announced that Jackson would receive $35.6 million for water system improvements — money that came from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act. The city was required to make a dollar-for-dollar match from its share of the rescue plan funding, bringing that total to more than $71 million.
In late November, the U.S. Justice Department made a rare intervention by filing a proposal to appoint a third-party manager for the Jackson system. That was meant to be an interim step while the federal government, the city and the Mississippi State Department of Health try to negotiate a court-enforced consent decree, the department said. The goal is to achieve long-term sustainability of the system and the city’s compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and other laws.
A federal judge approved the intervention, and Ted Henifin, an experienced water system manager from Virginia, was appointed manager. He has the backing of Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba.
Henefin is overseeing work that includes a winterization project to make the water system less vulnerable and a plan to increase staffing at Jackson’s two treatment plants, which have had a shortage of skilled workers.
In a statement Friday, the EPA administrator said he is grateful to Congress for committing money to Jackson.
“The people of Jackson — like all people in this country — deserve access to clean, safe, and reliable water,” Regan said.
Johnson said the federal funding would not have been approved without advocacy from Jackson residents and leadership from the Biden administration and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat whose district includes most of Jackson.
“While this funding is a significant step in the right direction, it represents only a down payment,” Johnson said. “NAACP and our partners will continue to fight to protect Black and brown communities from environmental racism in Jackson and around the country.”