Administrator Regan: EPA has immediate help for Jackson

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan said  a package totaling $69 million is available to Jackson immediately. And there’s a lot more in the long term, once the city, state, and federal people develop a good plan.

“Our concern is…to insure the people of Jackson that they will have good quality drinking water,” he said at a Wednesday press conference at Jackson State that was originally scheduled for the EPA office in downtown Jackson.  

The State of Mississippi will receive $26 million SRF (Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund) in 2022, plus $30 million for Jackson, and an additional $13 million that is currently in the process. 

“There are more funds,” Regan said.  “But that will require all of us working together to cut through the bureaucracy, have open lines of communications, and access these resources so that we can put them to work immediately so that we can have some longer term solutions for the people of Jackson.”

Regan, Gov. Tate Reeves, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, and Congressman Bennie Thompson emerged from a virtual meeting with the Mississippi congressional delegation. Their focus was on intermediate and long term plans. Reeves had said earlier in the week that  the short-term concern was for quantity and quality of water coming from the pipes in Jackson. Getting the boil water notice lifted is the most important short term goal, the governor said. 

Rural Water Association played a major role in repairing parts of the water system that otherwise would have been contracted out, Lumumba said.  “We will see improvements of O.B. Curtis and the water distribution system of Jackson,” he said. “We will lean in together to make sure that everything is flowing as it should.”

The plan for Jackson’s water operations brought a number of questions from reporters.  

“We need to see a plan in place that demonstrates how those resources will be spent and what they will be spent on,” Regan said.

Over the next five years, the State of MS will receive over $400 million from the infrastructure law, $72 million in the current fiscal year. 

“We want the City of Jackson to be competitive for those resources,” Regan said.  Over half the resources are allocated to disadvantaged communities with similar characteristics to Jackson. Make Jackson competitive for those funds, he said. 

Although Congressman Bennie Thompson did not speak at the press conference, he answered questions from the press once the formal gathering ended.  

Thompson says he was the only Mississippi delegation in Washington to vote for all the COVID funds and recovery money to come to the city of Jackson and other areas. 

“I have a 100 percent voting record on infrastructure and transportation and other COVID relief funds that have come.

“We need to make sure that the citizens of Jackson benefit from that opportunity.”

With any federal monies that come to the state, the expectation is that money will be  managed consistent with federal law.  A significant amount of TANF funds have been misspent in the biggest case of mismanaged funds the state has ever seen. Some individuals have been charged, some have not. And the case is still ongoing. 

“Anybody who used money inappropriately or illegally should suffer the consequences of the law,” adds Thompson. 

Will Jackson’s water system stay public or become privatized?

The Jackson water distribution system has been returned to its desired pressure, city and state officials announced Monday and Tuesday. But political pressure is growing to create new options to run the system in the long term. 

 “O.B. Curtis is at full capacity for the first time in months,” Gov. Reeves said Monday. 

The people of Jackson do have water from faucets, can flush toilets, fires can be fought. “But do not drink the water,” he warned.  

The current boil water alert went into effect on July 29 Reeves said. Investigative testing of the water at the O. B. Curtis plant began Monday. 

And the potential of the removal of the boil water notice might be measured in days rather than weeks and months, Reeves said.

Although talk of privatization of Jackson’s water system has been a part of the discussion for years, the mayor and members of the legislative delegation spoke against it. 

Mayor Lumumba said an operations and maintenance agreement  as opposed to outright privatization may be a workable approach for the long term.

“The only thing a city has a franchise or a monopoly on is water,” Lumumba said. 

“There’s extensive literature, there’s extensive history on how cities have been compromised by the privatization, or the pillaging of public resources and how it impacts the residents specifically. It impacts them in terms of the rate structure and how much they pay. Sometimes making it unaffordable for people to live in the city. That is why I’m opposed to privatization,” he said. 

State Rep. Earle Banks said he was  “horrified” by the idea of privatization. He foresees sharp rate increases. People, who don’t have income enough to pay the rates in place now, won’t be able to pay the increased rates, he said. 

State Sen. John Horhn wants the city to maintain control of its “most valuable asset.” The water for the long term solution, Horhn said, the city must come up with a well thought out plan.

The city, nevertheless, already has a limited private agreement for its waste-water treatment.

The City of Jackson contracted with Veolia for wastewater operations and maintenance services in 2017.   The international company is responsible for operating Jackson’s three wastewater treatment facilities – the Savanna Street, Trahon Creek, and Presidential Hills facilities.

Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes has been deeply concerned about the effect of the Jackson water on the young children and the elderly who require clean water for their daily medical needs. 

Stokes says he has urged a meeting of Jackson, the governor, and the federal officials to declare an emergency situation, in order to get the system fixed. 

Stokes said that he would support a limited privatization, if necessary, to get the problem solved.  He said he would favor an arrangement for the water treatment system similar to what the city has done with the waste water processing operations that is under contract to Veolia.

The situation is urgent and demands a remedy. 

Stokes said that the governor’s declaration of an emergency for the Jackson and the President’s declaration of an emergency shortly was what he was hoping for in the short term. He said he was unsure about what the long term solution should be, but that form of limited privatization might be best for Jackson.

WATER distribution 

Millions of bottles of drinking water flooded into Jackson from across the nation when word got out that, under threat of a flood, the city’s water processing system had failed. 

Council members and other community leaders were visible as they assisted with the water distribution in their various wards every day since the crisis. Ward 5 Councilman Vernon Hartley reportedly gave out 2,000  cases of water in 20 neighborhoods in less than a week. He also directed trucks and other delivery systems to various points of delivery. 

Dan Abrams, a chef and program coordinator for the World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., brought  in 18 wheelers, passing out water from the former Kroger lot on Terry Road.

“We were here in 2021 and we saw the need for food and water then. And we came back this time because we saw the huge need for water after the flood. We’re just focusing on water for now. We did 14,000 gallons up to Friday. And we’ve received up to 7 or 8 truckloads for today. 

“We’re a global organization based in Washington. We have some people here from New Orleans also. We had some contacts from here and so we mobilized.”

The National Guard set up shop at various schools across the city. At Cardozo Middle School,  Sgt. First Class Brian Alford, with the First Division of 204th regimen, said,“Things have gone well here. We’ve been able to push a large volume. I believe one of the largest volumes in the Jackson area. In addition, the personnel here have worked very hard and are well pleased with the soldiers. Surrounding community has been very grateful, very supportive.”  At Sykes Park Community Center, where Strong Arms of Jxn and Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition  facilitated a water distribution site,  a Texas couple – Woody Martin and wife, Sherrill – decided to help with water on their way back from moving a relative from Houston to Birmingham.

“We were empty on the way back and we just thought we’d go through Jackson and bring some water,” said Sherill Martin. 

“Woody Martin said,“I feel great to be a part of this mission.” Instead of going to a barbecue, we decided to come here.

Rukia Lumumba of the People’s Advocacy Institute, which is also affiliated with the MS Rapid Response Coalition, said, “We are asking people who are interested in supporting our efforts to provide clean water to our people here in Jackson, Mississippi, and to demand the funds to fix this problem, to go  to jxnpeoplesassembly.org.”

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Administrator Regan: EPA has immediate help for Jackson

By Earnest McBride
September 8, 2022