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Residents Finally Get to Participate in Negotiations Over Jackson’s Water Crisis

Residents experience near-daily concerns about sewage leakage, frequent boil water advisories and exposure to lead.

Cases of bottled water are handed out at a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition distribution site on August 31, 2022, in Jackson, Mississippi.

Jackson, Mississippi, residents will now have a formal seat in negotiations that could determine the future of clean water access.

The change comes from a “motion to intervene” in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) case against the city of Jackson. Filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign and the People’s Advocacy Institute, it marks the first time in decades that Jackson residents will have a voice in the rehabilitation of the water infrastructure.

“This is a very significant win for us,” said Danyelle Holmes, an organizer with the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign and a resident of Jackson. “This is what we have been long fighting for — a voice at the table and being able to be a part of the governance process as it relates to the water and sewer infrastructure here in the city of Jackson.”

For years, the water infrastructure in the capital city of 150,000 residents has failed against extreme weather, such as flooding and freezing temperatures. Worsening climate events are emerging pressures on the water system. Still, advocates say the reasons Jacksonians lack access to reliable, safe water are reflective of a deeper pattern of anti-Black city planning, sub-par infrastructure funding, and a failed promise from the federal government to invest in “environmental justice” communities.

“Residents have been left in the dark when it comes to public health,” said Jessica Vosburgh, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Intervenor status might change that.

On March 18, a federal judge granted the intervention, a legal move that allows third parties to take part in discussions even if they’re not listed as plaintiffs or defendants in a case. In late 2022, the EPA sued the city of Jackson for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act, which removed management of the water system from the city and placed control in the hands of a court-appointed manager, Ted Henifin.

Advocates say that placing control of the system in a court-appointed manager was more about the financial stabilization of the system than addressing near-daily public health concerns about sewage leakage, frequent boil water advisories, and exposure to lead. More than a year after the EPA filed the case against the city, residents still felt that adequate communication was lacking about health risks and transparency around fixing the water system.

The formal intervention will ideally allow residents to enjoy a level of participation and transparency of information that has never been offered before.

“The aim is to disseminate information not to just the community but to provide information to the court,” said Mikaila Hernández, a Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Before this point, conversations about the future of Jackson’s water took place between federal agencies like the Department of Justice and EPA along with state representatives — excluding Jackson residents, who know firsthand what it means to purchase bottled water to fulfill everyday tasks like cooking and cleaning.

It was a dynamic that mirrored too closely how the challenges with the water infrastructure came to be in the first place. Many components of Jackson’s water system were first built in the mid-20th century and haven’t been updated or replaced. Funding needed to address regular water main breaks and treatment plant compliance issues lagged as white flight lowered municipal tax revenue and the city’s ability to fund infrastructure projects. Jackson’s white population dropped by nearly 35,000 people between 1990 and 2000, while the Black population continued to increase.

The delay suggests that the state deliberately prevents these funds from reaching Jackson residents, Hernández said. From rejecting loan and emergency funding requests for aging infrastructure to denying a city proposal that would have put in place a 1% sales tax increase to fund water system repairs and even blocking pandemic aid and federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding from reaching the city of Jackson—white state leaders have prevented the Black-led city from making necessary changes.

Under the Biden administration’s goals to prioritize funding for “environmental justice” communities through his Justice40 agenda, Jackson, a majority-Black city where the average household income is $39,000, should be the prime recipient of federal funding. However, the reality differs from the promise.

Some attention from the White House has resulted in funding infusions of nearly $600 million, though the Jackson mayor previously said that the system requires $2 billion in upgrades and construction work.

But now, with a court-approved seat at the table, legal advocates hope that residents can advocate for their own needs, such as information about water testing and results along with debt and bill payment forgiveness. Holmes said the work is just beginning, and rectifying the damage will take years.

Vosburgh said she hopes the discussions will compel the state to take responsibility for the harm it has done to the city.

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