How does a Republican governor show compassion for the more than 150,000 people left without clean water in a majority-Black city? Apparently, by joking about their misfortune. Not more than 24 hours after a boil-water advisory was lifted in the city of Jackson, Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves joked on Friday that he was glad he wasn’t in the city, which is now facing a class action lawsuit.
“I’ve got to tell you, it is a great day to be in Hattiesburg. It's also, as always, a great day to not be in Jackson,” Reeves said at a groundbreaking event for Jones Capital LLC headquarters. “I feel like I should take off my emergency management director hat and leave it in the car and take off my public works director hat and leave it in the car.”
I feel like Reeves should take off his governor hat permanently, and with any hope in 2024, voters will do it for him.
RELATED STORY: Watch what's coming out of the faucets in Jackson, Mississippi, after water pressure restored
What makes Reeves’ joke so insulting is the truth it seems to illuminate. The governor has been accused of long ignoring Jackson’s requests for more state funding, dating back to an Environmental Protection Agency emergency administrative order from 2020 warning of "imminent and substantial endangerment" to people the Jackson water system serves.
After years of infrastructural issues related to the city’s water system, record rainfall and flooding overburdened the O.B. Curtis Water Plant, one of Jackson's two water treatment plants. The result was such a loss of water pressure there wasn't enough to put out fires or even flush toilets dependably, Daily Kos staff writer Mark Sumner wrote.
Although water pressure was restored earlier this month, it took more than 40 days for a boil-water advisory in the city to be lifted since it went into effect in July. Even after lifting the boil-water notice, the city still reported isolated cases of discolored water and pressure issues, although the number of cases seems to be decreasing.
In a class action lawsuit filed in the Southern District of Mississippi on behalf of Jackson's more than 153,000 residents, attorneys blamed the city's water issues on city and corporate officials, including the German conglomerate Siemens, whose contract to repair the city’s water-sewer infrastructure has already netted an $89.8 million settlement, Jackson Free Press reported.
“These residents lack more than just drinking water, or water for making powdered baby formula, cooking, showering, or laundry,” attorneys wrote in the lawsuit dated September 16. “During the long period where the city pipes had no water pressure—and were unable to facilitate the flow of water—residents of Jackson could not flush their toilets for days at a time.”
The suit also alleged that children had been diagnosed with lead poisoning. Lead plaintiff and school teacher Priscilla Sterling exhibited signs of "lead poisoning or other water contamination," and two other named plaintiffs, Shawn Miller and John Bennett, similarly exhibited signs of lead poisoning.
Raine Becker, another plaintiff in the suit, said she has a terminally ill 7-year-old son who was also affected. “We’re suffering because of the lack of leadership and planning by government officials and others,” Becker said in a statement.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, who is named in the suit, did not immediately respond to Daily Kos’ request for comment.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General Sean O’Donnell said in a statement released just days before the updated boil-water advisory that “it is critical” for his office “act with a sense of urgency.”
“We have begun the process of conducting interviews and collecting data related to the oversight of the water system and administration of the state’s water revolving funds,” O’Donnell said in the statement on Tuesday. “That information will provide a basis for decisions about additional work to follow.”
Carey Wooten, a Jackson resident, told The Associated Press on Friday that the water flowing out of her kitchen faucet smells less like sewage than before but the smell remains.
While city and federal officials continue to take steps to address the water issue, many activists and scholars point to a root cause that is more difficult to mend—racism. Marccus Hendricks, an urban studies professor at the University of Maryland, told the AP: “The legacy of racial zoning, segregation, legalized redlining have ultimately led to the isolation, separation, and sequestration of racial minorities into communities (with) diminished tax bases, which has had consequences for the built environment, including infrastructure.”
Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told MSNBC's Tiffany Cross that Jackson, as well as other majority-Black cities facing a water crisis—like Baltimore and Benton Harbor, Michigan—have seen a “significant amount of white flight, which have reduced the tax base, reducing their ability to refurbish and maintain these systems.”
“And because water is a utility that’s managed at the municipal level, where we see patterns of segregation we also see patterns of failure in infrastructure,” Perry said.
He was speaking on Cross’ show, The Cross Connection, which aired on Saturday.
Another guest on the show Manny Teodoro, a public affairs professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Reeves’ comments were “tough to listen to.”
“We’re talking about the capital of the state that he governs,” Teodoro said. “We can’t afford to think of these systems as so separate. We are all in this together, and municipal water systems work best at scale when they serve large numbers of people.”
Teodoro said the majority-Black central cities where the water does function well are where regional consolidation occurs, because “you’ve got a regional water authority so that nobody’s left behind.”
Creating a regional water authority is a proposal that has surfaced as a result of the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi Today reported.
A regional authority covering six counties was a requirement of Coast systems to get federal funding following Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi Today writers Geoff Pender and Bobby Harrison penned. "However, there was great infighting among cities and counties wanting to control their own water systems,” the journalists said, ”and in the end, the Coast regional authority passed by lawmakers in 2006 was really regional in name only, and the legislation also created six separate county authorities, allowed any who wanted to opt out, and allowed cities to mostly run their own systems."
Democrat and Mississippi state Sen. David Blount said in a post on Facebook last month some level of state control will likely be required to access more funding.
“To get the money the state controls, I expect state leaders to insist on changes to the Jackson water system,” Blount wrote. “I am open to any discussion, provided that it 1) must include significant money that is sufficient to fix the problem and 2) protects the citizens, especially low-income citizens, with fair water rates. If we can convince the governor and state legislative leaders to spend what is needed to fix our water system, we must say YES. Inaction and complaints are not an option.”
Blount also responded to news of the lifted boil-water advisory with a call of federal, state, and city leaders to “immediately begin work on a plan to restore the long-term stability of the Jackson water and sewer system.”
“When an agreement is reached, I urge the Governor to call a special session of the Legislature to put the plan into effect as quickly as possible,” Blount wrote.
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RELATED STORY: Jackson, MS is without drinking water after decades of white flight and neglect by state officials