- WASHINGTON POST
Why Jackson, Miss., Still Can’t Count on Clean Running Water
11:45 JST, February 19, 2023
JACKSON, Miss. – The first time the nation’s top environmental official walked through the quiet halls of Wilkins Elementary School, Javaris Webster and a group of fellow fourth-graders begged him for help.
“Please do something about our water,” Javaris pleaded to Michael Regan, the EPA administrator. Sometimes, the water from pipes came out thick and oily and brown. Other times, the water did not come out at all. That morning, pressure was so low that classes were canceled, costing precious learning time.
“I am not a plumber,” Javaris said later, as he recalled the November 2021 conversation. “I’m 11.”
Regan promised to do everything he could to help. But the problems got worse. Since Regan’s first visit 15 months ago, there have been at least 150 instances when the city has told subdivisions, schools, hospitals and churches in Jackson that their water might be unsafe to drink, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. The city’s main supply has been shut off at least four times, including one stretch last summer when residents subsisted without drinkable water for 45 days. During the holidays, an arctic blast froze Jackson’s pipes again, delaying Christmas gift exchanges while residents began a familiar scramble for bottled water.
The national attention dissipated after last year’s the state of emergency, but the state of normalcy is just as unsettling. At Wilkins, even when there is no calamity, Javaris and his classmates take bottles of water with them to flush toilets. There’s no water to wash their hands – the teacher must provide hand sanitizer. Green tape covers drinking spouts in the hallway. In this almost-exclusively Black community in the heart of the South, it is still a privilege for children to use the water fountain.
Sometimes, pools of black goo emerge when residents draw baths in their homes. When water pressure goes low suddenly, residents run outside with buckets and break open fire hydrants.
“We can’t trust that we’ll get water,” said Ray Charles, 61, after one such incident in the fall. “This is what we are used to. And it’s a damn shame.”
This account of why an American city of 150,000 has failed to provide its residents with a basic necessity of life – and how that has devastated the community – is based on more than four dozen interviews with residents, water experts, civic leaders, and local, state and federal officials; as well as a review of water policy studies, city records, staff emails and three decades of infrastructure plans. The Post also analyzed the locations and frequency of notices issued since 2017 advising residents to boil their water.
The review made clear that Jackson’s water crisis was not the result of one bad weather event or a single case of human error or even short-term neglect. It is a tragedy years in the making – born of racial distrust, political brinkmanship and systemic failure at every level of government.
Decades of suspicion and animus between a conservative White political power structure and a liberal majority-Black city have consistently led to circular arguments about who is to blame for the problem and who should be responsible for fixing it. That tension persists today in the state Capitol, as lawmakers battle over new legislation that, if passed, would chip away at Jackson’s elected leaders’ ability to run their own city.
As the two sides have sparred, water shut-offs have become more frequent, more widespread and more routine with each year – especially in the city’s least affluent neighborhoods.
In those communities, residents fear the consequences of this continued crisis, especially for children and pregnant people who are vulnerable to a host of health problems that result from ingesting lead and other contaminants in water.
An NAACP civil rights complaint against the state filed in September with the federal government pointed to those concerns, quoting nine public health experts who stated that “contaminated drinking water, such as that in Jackson, contributes to higher rates and more severe incidences of illness and disease in Jackson than in other areas with better overall health baselines.”
State officials have lambasted the city for hatching incomplete plans, ignoring paperwork and mismanaging public finances.
“Absolute and total incompetence” is how Mississippi’s White Republican governor, Tate Reeves, described Jackson’s handling of its two water plants, which are teetering on a total breakdown.
“Racist” and “paternalistic” is how Jackson’s Black Democratic mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, described Reeves’s treatment of his city to The Post. During Lumumba’s tenure, state lawmakers have rejected at least 135 bills that would have given grants or loans to Jackson.
Since Regan visited Wilkins, he has tried to use the might of the federal government to resolve the issue. For decades, the department largely left the city and the state to handle their disputes. But in October, the agency opened a civil rights investigation into whether the state has treated the city fairly. In November, the EPA worked with the Justice Department to file a court order against the city – a necessary step that allowed them to bring in an outside manager to oversee the water system.
In December, the department helped to usher in a massive new infusion of money – $600 million tucked into the spending bill signed by President Biden – to help fund new operators, training programs and maintenance.
But even as city leaders greeted the federal money as a potentially game-changing win, there were worries that funds would fall into the same decades-long squabbles that have stifled the city’s progress. About $150 million is supposed to be sent directly to Jackson, officials said. The other $450 million must go through the state’s coffers first – leaving residents wary of possible meddling.
“If the state wants to play chicken, we’re game for that,” Regan told leaders at a community roundtable in September, according to a recording obtained by The Post. “But I believe that if we work together with the state of Mississippi . . . I believe that the resources can be where they need to go.”
At the meeting, Charles Taylor, the head of Mississippi’s NAACP chapter, reminded Regan that he was dealing with a state that rejected funds to expand Medicaid, returned money for rental assistance and is ensconced in a scandal involving using welfare dollars to make sweetheart deals with celebrities – all decisions that disproportionately affected Black people.
The crisis has been unfolding during a period in which the country struggles with when, or if, it should address the lingering impact of centuries of structural racism. The debates are not theoretical in Jackson. For residents, the stakes are clear: If those issues remain unaddressed, Javaris’s school might never have reliable running water.
As residents sat in blocks-long lines waiting for free bottled water in last year’s summer heat, City Council Vice President Angelique Lee received an invitation.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann wanted to meet with her in the state Capitol to discuss solutions to the water crisis. Lee wanted the opportunity to chat, but she was skeptical; she had heard of so many times when the state’s leaders had come up with plans that the city found offensive.
This meeting, much to her dismay, featured one of those plans: Hosemann offered his staff to write her a resolution calling for the city council to give up oversight of Jackson’s water system. Instead, power over the water system would be turned over to a regional board of nine people, mostly chosen by state leaders. Only three members would be chosen by Jackson’s leadership.
Hosemann, whose office acknowledged “many meetings” about Jackson’s water plants but declined to discuss specifics, presented the plan as a way to get more experienced personnel running the system.
But it played into Lee’s worst suspicions.
To Lee, the history of racial terrorism and Jim Crow laws showed that many White leaders feel Black people don’t have the ability – or shouldn’t have the power – to manage public resources. They lived in a region in which Black farmers had land seized from them, losing the chance to build intergenerational wealth. And in the past decade, Lee had witnessed the state’s failed attempt to oversee the city schools and another effort to take over the city’s airport, which is awaiting a court ruling.
“I remember [former mayor] Tony Yarber saying, ‘They’re trying to take our resources,'” Lee said. “It’s not just the water. The state has a history of underfunding things that are Black-related.”
Ashby Foote, a council member who is White and its lone Republican, did not think the idea was so bad if it brought help to the city. He warned that the past can sometimes cloud the judgment of the present. “We have more baggage than Samsonite when it comes to this stuff,” Foote told The Post. “The challenge is what we can do today to solve the crisis today. I don’t know that it’s necessarily productive to fall back into the narrative of, ‘This is the Whites being mean to a Black city, blah, blah, blah.'”
Lee could not ignore that narrative. Alarmed, she contacted Lumumba, who shared her worries.
“There is a consistency in what is taking place,” Lumumba warned. “We just have to be vigilant enough to pay attention.”
The possibility that the state government could usurp control played in the back of the minds of Jackson officials each time they discussed the crisis. They had to work with state leaders – but did not fully trust them.
The focus of discussions might have been about water, on its face. Under the surface, though, Lee and Lumumba saw another episode in a long battle for a Black city’s right to determine its own fate.
When the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant was christened in 1994, news reports show, Mayor Kane Ditto said the project would ensure “residents have safe clean water for many, many years to come.” Sitting on the city’s northern border, the additional facility was intended to meet the needs of a community that had relied on one plant built in the early 1900s.
By the time Harvey Johnson became the city’s first Black mayor in 1997, Jackson had a serious problem. A study showed the existing pipes would be unable to withstand pressure from the new water facility. The pipes were old and corroded and small, some as tiny as two inches in diameter.
The most troubled pipes tended to be in the city’s poorest and Blackest neighborhoods. Johnson was unsurprised. He had seen a similar pattern across the state, in which the disparities between access to water in Black neighborhoods and in White neighborhoods were so stark that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in 1971 asserted that cities could not discriminate against races when distributing municipal services. That case, Hawkins v. Town of Shaw, reflected the legacy of water policy in Mississippi.
Johnson estimated that fixes to the water and sewer system would cost $400 million. But he needed to figure out how to get the funds to a city that was losing money, people and power.
Once a sprawling metropolis of 200,000, the capital city’s population had been decreasing since the 1970s, after White families settled in the suburbs following a court mandate to integrate schools.
And when Johnson became mayor, he felt that he was treated as if he lacked the know-how to do the job, despite his background as a city planner. Even for something as small as landscaping flowers at a state park near city hall, he recalled skeptical state officials asking him: “Do you have a plan for that?”
It reminded him of the premonition that former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, the first Black leader of a major city in the South, shared when Johnson entered office: “You will have high expectations from your Black residents and high anxiety from the Whites.” Johnson said he had to find ways to balance both.
“I think the opposition was because of who I was, not the position that I occupied,” Johnson said. “You feel it. It’s just like when you go into a department store and all of a sudden you got somebody walking around, seeing if you are going to take anything.”
Johnson became widely known for his decision to take Confederate flags out of city buildings and to take down a portrait of Andrew Jackson that hung over the chambers in City Hall. None of these acts endeared him to the mostly rural, White lawmakers in the state Capitol who regularly rejected his proposals for financing.
In 2009, the state legislature finally approved a bill Johnson hoped could help raise more money for city operations. The bill would allow the city’s residents to vote on a 1 percent sales tax to raise money, which would generate around $13 million a year.
There was a caveat: The ballot question included the creation of a commission that would oversee how the money was being spent – with less than one-third of the members being from the city’s actual government.
Johnson found the offer insulting but put the measure on the ballot in 2012 as the city’s problems continued to accrue. The measure passed. But then came another financial setback. That same year, in the twilight of his third term, the EPA discovered that the city had been dumping untreated sludge into the Pearl River, a primary source for Jackson’s reservoir. The discovery forced the city to plan more than $400 million in repairs over the ensuing 18 years, according to news reports.
Debts rising, Johnson and the city council looked for alternatives to raising water rates on their residents.
In 2013, new Mayor Chokwe Lumumba – the father of the current mayor – and the city council implemented a deal with a German tech company named Siemens that offered to build more accurate meter readers, potentially saving $120 million a year.
With the Siemens contract and the new 1 percent sales tax approved by voters, city leaders hoped they could have enough money to fix the pipes.
But by then, the O.B. Curtis plant had begun to deteriorate.
The massive system was hard to maintain as staff took higher-paying jobs in the suburbs, leaving the remaining workers to conduct draining, days-long shifts. At times, the plant’s staffing dwindled from 35 to seven, according to city records previously reported in USA Today.
By 2015, the state’s health department reported that parts of the plant were clogged with dirt and grime. The pumps were so out of whack that they could not properly filter water. The problems continued to worsen as pipes aged.
Over time, inspection records show, the state found 55 cracks per every 100 miles of pipe – almost four times higher than the EPA’s acceptable standard.
In sum: The city’s water system was potentially dangerous, unsanitary and inefficient – as much as 50 percent of water was lost when it flowed through Jackson’s leaking pipes.
Citing Jackson’s “significant deficiencies,” the EPA in 2020 issued a blistering report to the city’s mayor.
“The city of Jackson failed to fully implement lead and copper tap monitoring requirements,” one part read.
“The city of Jackson failed to conduct public education tasks and failed to provide required consumer notifications related to lead action level exceedences,” another said.
O.B. Curtis was not the gem the city had expected. Mary Carter, a former plant manager who complained about being overworked, referred to it with a dreary nickname: “My problem child.”
The 1 percent sales tax commission had done little to fix the problem child.
A battle began almost immediately over who should have the power to determine how the money would be spent. City leaders argued that they had a right to draft plans to improve roads and water systems on their own. But members such as Pete Perry, the head of the Hinds County Republican Party and a gubernatorial appointee, bristled that the city was working without them. In some instances, Perry said, city officials would request money for one purpose and spend it on another.
Perry, who is White, told The Post that the city’s leaders were treating the rest of the board like mushrooms – “keeping us in the dark and feeding us bulls—.”
“We have a right to draw up plans, with y’all’s input, because that’s what the law said to do,” Perry said he tried to explain to city officials. “You’re not supposed to hand it to us.”
The relationship with Siemens, the company that was paid to fix the water meters, was also in disarray. City staff continued to find broken meters that were installed incorrectly, creating even more financial pain for the city, according to court documents.
As revenue from the water and sewer system continued to dry up, the city’s water supply was becoming even more broken.
More residents and businesses began receiving alerts that their water might be unsafe because of problems with pipes connecting to each of the city’s 60,000 water meters. Those warnings, issued in the media and on the city’s website, instructed people to boil water used for “cooking or baking, making ice cubes, taking medication, brushing teeth, washing food, mixing baby formula or food, mixing juices or drinks, feeding pets, washing dishes and all other consumption.”
In 2019, there were 10,000 times when the city alerted that a water meter was connected to a pipe producing questionable water, The Post’s analysis shows. Just one year later, the number skyrocketed to 115,000.
The problems happened in some communities so often that receiving boil water notices became a disturbingly frequent part of life.
The city’s less affluent communities were the most impacted, according to an analysis of six years of boil water notices. Families living in neighborhoods with a median household income of less than $50,000 a year received notices twice as often as those who lived in wealthier parts of town.
The daily difficulties piled up for residents. Sheila Davis, 62, complained that each morning, her faucet would spew colors that went from brown to green to yellow to clear. Diedre Long, a paralegal who is part of the NAACP complaint, estimated spending $125 a month on water bottles. She worried about her adult daughter, who is colorblind and could not gauge whether the water looked safe to drink. Imelda Brown, 74, complained of water so oily that she would not even use it to make dinner.
In the suburbs, newly constructed highways led to outdoor malls with Apple Stores and upscale neighborhoods with water fountains. In Jackson, restaurants were opting to use paper plates. Portable toilets lined school sidewalks. Sometimes, during a water shut-off, schoolchildren would be bused across the county line just so they could have a hot lunch or shower after football practice – a form of reintegration that only solidified distinctions between them and others.
Concerned at how frequently schools were closing because of low water pressure, Erica Jones of the state teachers union sent representatives to survey parents near the check-cashing store, the supermarket and the local Piggly Wiggly. In more than 1,300 interviews, they found that well over 90 percent of parents said they did not trust the city’s water supply.
They were nervous for their children. Charles Wilson III, 61, had vowed to be a great dad to his youngest boy, Charles V. He had lost Charles IV as an infant, and he could not bear the idea of seeing another son suffer.
He had thought water was the solution. So, as a single father, he mixed the baby formula himself. He fixed his boy soup. He’d chide his child if he grabbed a soda after coming home from play. “Drink water,” Wilson told him.
During prekindergarten, Wilson’s youngest son began complaining of headaches and had frequent fits of diarrhea. Wilson said doctors often dismissed the boy’s complaints – a familiar experience, according to surveys showing that racial bias often leads medical professionals to under-treat Black patients for pain compared with how they treat White patients. By the time lawyers began investigating the health impacts of Jackson’s water supply, Wilson’s youngest son, now 6, had trouble focusing and regulating his mood.
“I thought water was basic,” Wilson said. “And then to learn those pipes have been messed up for years – years – and I knew nothing.”
Wilson is a part of a pending class-action lawsuit alleging negligence from the city in treating its water supply. His attorney, Corey Stern, was the architect of a similar lawsuit in Flint, Mich., that resulted in a $600 million settlement with the state. What Stern has seen in Jackson is far worse than Flint, he said. The crisis in Michigan took time to resolve, but the problems abated after city leaders switched back from the new water supply to an old one.
In Jackson, Stern said, he found a “comedy of errors from the jump.” Decades of neglect had built upon decades of neglect.
“It’s not to minimize Flint, but when you look at Jackson, I don’t know how Mississippi could have failed so badly,” Stern said. “In Flint, the problem covered one administration. Jackson covers multiple governors, city councils, multiple state officials and mayors.”
Jackson officials said they do not comment on pending litigation.
A U-shaped staircase stands in the back of Jackson’s city hall, adorned with photos of those mayors. Ascending, smiling portraits of White mayors are hung on one side. The city’s Black leaders preside on the other side, starting with Johnson.
The display ends with a portrait of Mayor Lumumba, who captured national headlines when he was elected in 2017 a part of a cohort of new Black lawmakers that were now leading major cities in the South. They vowed to find new solutions to old problems, carrying a wave of activism that ignited throughout the country after the election of former president Donald Trump.
Lumumba also wanted to carry the legacy of his father, the civil rights activist and former mayor after whom he was named, in helping to restore dignity to the residents. And for him, the ultimate indignity was the exploitation of Black residents.
Still, as he searched for new solutions, he faced the consequences of the unaddressed problems of the past. He tried to recoup money by suing Siemens, citing “fraud” and a “bait-and-switch,” according to court documents.
The city and the company reached a settlement in 2020 in which Jackson got back the $90 million it had paid.
A Siemens spokesman declined to comment on the settlement, referring to a joint statement that said: “Although the project did not end as either party hoped, the City recognizes the efforts of Siemens personnel to identify solutions to challenging issues throughout the course of its work.”
The settlement money vanished quickly after attorney’s fees and loan repayments. And because the water bills were still inaccurate, Lumumba did not feel comfortable forcing residents and businesses to pay them. Budget records show that, as of 2020, residents owed the city more than $65 million in unpaid water bills.
If the deficit was created through the acts of man, the system’s weaknesses were vulnerable to acts of nature, deepening the problem.
Heavy rains meant more unprocessed water would have to be filtered through a busted system that already had trouble functioning. Freezes were known to lead to pipe bursts.
The high-profile water shut-offs of 2021, which brought national media attention and prompted the visit by the EPA’s Regan, gave some local officials hope that they might finally get the help they needed. That year, they asked the state for $47 million – a number they figured was reasonable. The state offered just $3 million for corrosion control for the older of Jackson’s two water plants – nothing for Curtis, “the problem child,” the source of most of the city’s troubles.
Local lawmakers watched angrily as the state legislature allocated more than a billion dollars in loans and grants to other parts of the state, for what they saw as far less consequential concerns. The state purchased furniture for a country music museum and helped to finance boat ramps, football fields, a children’s museum and an aquarium. Forty-three bills drafted to help Jackson died in committee.
“These are the politics: There’s a real feeling that if Jackson had a Republican – or a White person – representing us, we wouldn’t be dealing with this,” said city council member Aaron Banks, who is Black. “And so, in some people’s mind, that carries over into what they do and how they vote legislatively.”
Banks acknowledged that there were problems with the city’s proposals. Gov. Reeves, who did not respond to requests for comment, told reporters at the time that Jackson needed “to do a better job collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money.”
Some Democrats from the city council to the state legislature were stunned by the city’s lack of preparation to make its case. To justify the $47 million, the city had distributed a vague PowerPoint presentation to state and federal lawmakers listing needed repairs and their costs. The plan did not describe where the money would come from, nor did it include details about increasing staffing or how the money would be managed.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), whose district includes Jackson, lambasted the city for going months without a lobbyist to help. Members of both parties in the state legislature blamed the city council for giving Jackson a bad reputation through public disputes about how it operates other services, such as garbage pickup.
“We can’t feed the narrative that they spew against us,” State Rep. De’Keither Stamps (D), who is Black, recalled telling city leaders. “Our stuff has got to be twice as good to be counted as fair . . . So when the Republicans say mismanagement, they’re right. When our side says racism, they’re right.”
In 2022, the city found an ambassador they hoped would have a better shot.
State Rep. Shanda Yates – a Democrat who had ousted a longtime Republican in an affluent part of Jackson – drew up a bill for the state to grant the city $45 million.
Congress had approved a massive federal stimulus bill, signed by Biden, that gave states the ability to determine how the money would be spent. Yates had talked to high-ranking Republican leaders who seemed willing to divert some of those funds to help fix Jackson’s water problems.
But there was one catch: The state would reserve the money in its own bank account. The city would have to request the money each time it wanted to cut a check.
“I don’t think so,” Stamps recalled saying when Yates announced the deal in a meeting with lawmakers who represented Jackson.
It felt like the same insulting theme.
Yates insisted this time would be different because of how the federal government distributed stimulus money. A portion of it was directly given to local governments, too. And in Mississippi, the lieutenant governor’s office had said it wouldn’t spend any more money on municipal water projects than the local government was willing to spend itself.
Because Jackson wanted extra money, the state would need to create a “special fund.”
During the discussions, state Rep. Zakiya Summers (D) listened, confused. How had Yates already received support from both city and state leaders? Summers, whose district was among the most impacted, had been trying to work with the city government to craft a proposal and didn’t get as far. But she remembered multiple conversations about the state disregarding proposals from Black lawmakers. Yates was the only White woman in their delegation.
“I’m not mad about it,” Summers said. “If Shanda is the one to carry the water – so to speak – and she can make it happen, I’m willing to get behind that.”
For her part, Yates noted that she had worked at a law firm with the state’s House speaker and gone to law school with the chairman of the Ways and Means committee.
“I just happened to know some of those people, so it’s easy for me to start a conversation with them,” Yates said. “I never thought, ‘I’m White, so this will be easier.’ Maybe I should have. I don’t know. That’s a very complicated thing.”
Desperate for change, every member of the Jackson delegation except Stamps agreed to co-sponsor her bill. Ultimately, though, the plan failed. Lawmakers approved a measure that created the bureaucratic framework for a special fund – but did not allocate any stimulus money.
The incident raised Yates’s profile, so much so that older Democrats in the party wondered why this White woman was suddenly representing them. As Jackson leaders criticized the state’s lack of action, Yates said Republicans complained to her that they were being unfairly cast as racist.
“I attempted last year, very much so, to work as an intermediary between both of those groups, and it largely blew up in my face,” Yates said.
By the end of the session, amid such scrutiny, Yates switched her political affiliation from Democrat to independent.
Lumumba grew even more frustrated. Time and time again, he said he saw structural barriers covertly working against his city. When he tried to apply for grants or loans, there were income and population limits, loan caps and other mechanisms that disproportionately hurt the largest city in Mississippi’s chance of getting them.
Meanwhile, the problems continued to get worse. In 2022, the number of times the city told a home or business that their water was unsafe to drink rose to more than 202,000.
Lumumba’s complaints compelled Thompson and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) to send a letter of inquiry to the governor in the fall.
In his written response two weeks later, Reeves stated that there is “no factual basis whatsoever to suggest that there has been an ‘underinvestment’ in the City or that it received disproportionately less than any other area of the state.” He said the state deserved credit for bringing in emergency management workers and noted that Jackson’s “ongoing and historic mismanagement” shouldn’t gobble up all the state’s funds when there are 1,100 water systems in Mississippi.
“Only the system operated by the City is unable to set and collect rates sufficient to cover its costs of operations, maintenance and debt service,” he wrote.
In September, the governor stood in front of a crowd in the city of Hattiesburg at a groundbreaking ceremony for a private equity firm. His insults about Jackson’s management continued, joking that he was the city’s “public works director.”
“It’s a great day not to be in Jackson,” he said. The crowd laughed, mocking a city whose leaders have long talked about the humiliation that this desperate situation had wrought.
Weeks later, Lumumba was slated to give his State of the City address to his community. It was set to be delivered in the historically Black business district he had hoped to revive, directed at a city in which children felt ashamed to go to their schools.
In the next few months, state lawmakers would hatch proposals to have the state’s highest court – not voters – appoint judges to have jurisdiction over crimes in the city’s majority-White neighborhoods and its commercial corridors.
Another bill would put the water system under regional control. And Yates would lead a failed attempt to pass a bill that would make it easier for the state to depose the mayor. Even as the city was receiving a game-changing amount of federal help and fixing Curtis’s old problems, state lawmakers attempted to carry out the types of power-shifting policies Lumumba and Lee once foretold.
On the day of his address, Lumumba filmed his speech earlier inside a museum. Politics could be predictable, but the weather was not.
As dusk descended, he took to a podium to introduce his recording. Before him were empty storefronts he hoped to fill and Black faces he wanted to inspire.
“It’s always a great day to be in Jackson,” Lumumba said. In a struggling community, even a mayor’s simple greeting carried the weight of the past.
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