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EPA urges state to use $75 million in water infrastructure money to help Jackson, underserved communities

Water is allowed to settle at the Curtis plant's coventional basin, before it is chemically...
Water is allowed to settle at the Curtis plant's coventional basin, before it is chemically treated.(WLBT)
Published: Dec. 2, 2021 at 2:18 PM CST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (WLBT) - Mississippi is set to receive nearly $75 million in water infrastructure funding as part of the recent bipartisan infrastructure bill, and based on information provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, Jackson could get a big chunk of it.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has created a historic opportunity to correct longstanding environmental and economic injustices across America,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a news release. “Billions of dollars are about to start flowing to states and it is critical that EPA partners with states, tribes, and territories to ensure the benefits of these investments are delivered in the most equitable way... As leaders, we must seize this moment.”

It was unclear how much Jackson would receive in the funding, which first go to the state before being allocated to municipalities. However, EPA’s top official is calling on states to prioritize underserved communities and is specifically calling on Jackson to seek a portion of the funding.

“Administrator Regan’s letter to governors is a call to action to prioritize funding for communities that have historically been locked out of federal funding,” EPA Environmental Scientist Melba Table said.

In a Dec. 2 letter sent to Gov. Tate Reeves, Regan mentioned Jackson specifically. “From Jackson to Houston, New Orleans to St. James Parrish, environmental-justice communities are concerned that they will be shut out of accessing water infrastructure funding from the SRFs. States and the EPA can and must do better with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” he said.

SRFs are state-revolving loan funds. Much of the funds will be going to states through the federal SRF program. Additionally, nearly half of the money will be made available as grants or principal forgiveness loans to “remove barriers to investing in essential water infrastructure in underserved communities across America and in urban centers,” the EPA’s release states.

Regan told Reeves that Assistant EPA Administrator Radhika Fox will soon be issuing additional guidance for how the funding is to be spent.

“Every state in America has disadvantaged communities - rural, urban, suburban - that have deeply rooted water challenges, whether it is too much, too little, or poor-quality water,” Regan wrote. “These communities have never received their fair share of federal water infrastructure funding. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, states have an unprecedented opportunity to correct this disparity.”

The announcement and Regan’s letter come just weeks after the EPA administrator toured Jackson’s O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant during a stop on his “Journey for Justice” tour.

According to the EPA, the week-long trip was designed to raise awareness about “environmental justice concerns in historically marginalized communities, and hear firsthand from residents dealing with the severe impacts of pollution in those areas.”

Jackson has faced its share of environmental justice issues this year. In February and March, tens of thousands of customers were without water for weeks after extremely cold conditions crippled production at the city’s water treatment plants.

Weeks after that problem was addressed, an electrical fire shut down operations at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. And in November, water production at the Curtis plant was cut when operators found that bad chemicals had been used to treat the water.

EPA Administrator Regan speaks with City Engineer Charles Williams at Jackson's O.B. Curtis...
EPA Administrator Regan speaks with City Engineer Charles Williams at Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.

On December 3, the Associated Press reported that during Regan’s visit to Jackson, students, and teachers at Wilkins Elementary School had to use portable restrooms outside because of low water pressure brought about by the city’s infrastructure issues.

Additionally, a lawsuit recently filed in federal court claims that children in the city have been exposed to lead for years thanks to the city’s water treatment processes.

Meanwhile, Jackson is facing at least $2 billion in infrastructure needs, including an estimated $170 million to address concerns outlined in an EPA administrative order.

The order, which governs Jackson’s water system, was handed down, in part, to address numerous deficiencies at its water treatment plants and in its water treatment processes. The city council approved entering into the agreement this summer.

According to the order, Jackson violated the Mississippi State Department of Health’s lead and copper rule regarding water treatment multiple times between January 2016 and June 2021. Records also show the city’s water system exceeded lead levels in 2015 and 2016, and go on to state that Jackson failed to follow the lead and copper treatment requirements for at least the following periods:

  • January to June 2016 - 144 days of excursions below water quality parameters (WQP)
  • July to December 2016 - 179 days of excursions
  • Jan. to June 2017 - 183 days of excursions
  • July to Dec. 2017 - 186 days of excursions
  • Jan. to June 2018 - 167 days of excursions
  • July to Dec. 2018 - 183 days of excursions
  • Jan. to June 2019 - 89 days of excursions
  • July to Dec. 2019 - 59 days of excursions
  • Jan. to June 2020 - 181 days of excursions
  • July to Dec. 2020 - 63 days of excursions
  • Jan. to June 2021 - 42 days of excursions (through April 28)

The city did not notify the public of the WQP excursions for July to Dec. 2016, Jan. to June 2017, and July to Dec. 2017, EPA findings show.

That failure to notify residents prompted a major lawsuit brought by the same attorney who represented clients in the Flint, Michigan water case.

Recently, 600 children filed suit in federal district court saying they had been exposed to lead for years through the city’s drinking water system and that Jackson attempted to cover it up.

According to the suit, Jackson learned of an impending lead problem with its water well system in 2013 and again in 2014. To address the problem, the suit alleges Jackson switched part of its system off of the well water and onto the Pearl River and Ross Barnett Reservoir.

However, the water from the river and reservoir was more corrosive than the well supply, causing the treated water to corrode pipes and lead to leach into the water. The city eventually switched back to the well water supply as a result, according to the suit.

Attorneys claim their clients, as well as other residents, have had to struggle to find clean drinking water and that the city has violated their due process rights “including the fundamental right to bodily integrity.”

“(The) plaintiff has also sustained violations of substantive due process rights, including the fundamental right not to have the state create, inflict and/or exacerbate dangers through the culpable actions of public officials.”

On Thursday, December 2, Magistrate Judge LaKeysha Isaac granted the city and other defendants additional time to respond to the allegations. The deadline to answer the complaint is January 12.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said Jackson would be seeking its share of the federal funding and applauded the EPA for its efforts to help underserved areas.

He said that calls for Jackson to seek and be given assistance are signs that the EPA wants to not only help Jackson bring its water and sewer systems into compliance with federal laws but provide the city with the resources it needs to do it.

Said Lumumba, “Communities like Jackson, which make national and international news because of the decay of infrastructure, must be equitably served.”

We have reached out to Gov. Tate Reeves and are awaiting comment.

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