Mississippi water crisis sparks blame game

Why, he asked, was money from the state’s revolving fund and the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package Biden signed last fall not used to help Jackson?

Jackson’s population is 81.8% black and 16% white, with a poverty rate of 26.9%, slightly higher than the rest of the state, according to the Census Bureau.

« When will those dollars get to towns like Jackson? » said Ali, now executive vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. « And what is the long-term plan to meet the needs that the climate crisis will impose on these systems? »

Scientists warn that climate change will intensify water problems, as extreme weather conditions lead to more frequent and intense floods and droughts.

Biden’s endorsement of an emergency declaration authorizes FEMA to « coordinate all disaster relief efforts » and provide equipment and resources, which could include emergency relief supplies such as bottled water and the muscle to distribute it.

The emergency declaration allows FEMA to assign other federal agencies, including the military, emergency duties that state and local governments cannot handle. FEMA and other agencies can provide technical assistance to review and assess the water facility. A FEMA coordination officer is expected to be on site today at the Mississippi Emergency Operations Center in Pearl, Mississippi to coordinate federal assistance.

FEMA will also pay 75% of the costs Mississippi and its localities incur to provide emergency protective measures over the next 90 days to respond to the water crisis. A federal emergency declaration is often used to help states respond to crises that do not involve natural disasters such as hurricanes that cause significant property damage.

The announcement comes a day after Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves (right) declared a state of emergency and activated the Mississippi National Guard. The governor also warned residents during a press conference that the lack of clean water was threatening « critical needs » across the city – from flushing toilets to fighting fires – and that there was no end in sight.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell spoke with Reeves last night and has been in regular contact with state emergency officials.

The disaster was triggered as extreme rainfall in Jackson swelled the Pearl River and flooded the city’s ailing water treatment plants, causing dangerously low water pressure (green wireAugust 30).

Jackson has struggled for years with water system outages, accidents and equipment failures, problems that city officials have attributed to collapsing infrastructure. Last year, a deep freeze caused ancient water pipes described as fragile as “brittle peanuts” to burst, knocking water service out of service for weeks (green wireMarch 3, 2021).

More recently, the city has been under a boil water advisory since late July after testing the quality of uncovered water that could cause health concerns.

At a news conference at the OB Curtis water plant yesterday, Reeves and other officials said dozens of tractor-trailers full of bottled water would continue to pour into the city each day. They also said the state plans to hire an additional pump to help run the water plant.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said at a separate press conference yesterday that he welcomes the support and valuable resources the state is now providing, but said the city has for years been in a « constant state of emergency » between boil water advisories and low water. pressure, and that long-standing problems stem from inadequate maintenance, staffing and resources.

« We’ve gone it alone for the better part of two years when it comes to the water crisis in Jackson, » he said. « I have said many times that it is not a question of whether our system will fail, but a question of when our system will fail. »

Plant maintenance, personnel issues

Officials yesterday attributed Jackson’s current water problems to a combination of flooding, chemical changes, long-standing infrastructure issues and staffing shortages, but gave few details on when. conditions would improve.

“After the briefing I just received, things are not significantly worse today than they were yesterday,” Reeves said. « They are not significantly better, but we are seeing progress. »

Jim Craig, director of health protection for the state health department, pointed to flooding that occurred in a reservoir north of the plant, sending a surge of rainwater into the facility. water treatment plant that displaced the chemicals needed for disinfection. The city then turned to a separate facility – the JH Fewell Water Treatment Plant in Jackson – which operated until a pump failed, rendering it unable to increase water flow. water, depending on the city.

Reeves said « it’s virtually impossible for anyone to know » how many are without clean water. He also reiterated that the water is not drinkable. State officials recommend that residents boil water for one minute before consuming it.

Craig said the problems with the water supply system were triggered by the flooding of a reservoir north of the treatment plant, sending a wave of stormwater into the plant and increasing the need for chemical disinfection. .

Reeves said much of the water that passed through the plant’s filtration system was « somewhere between raw and not clean. »

Craig said the facility, which can handle up to 50 million gallons of water a day, only pushes about 30 million gallons.

Authorities are now looking for ways to get more water into the plant’s reservoirs. The state purchased a rental pump that was due to be put in place today, Craig said, to increase the daily flow of 4 million gallons of water out of the plant and help increase the pressure of the water in the city.

Craig said the plant’s woes stem from a lack of maintenance staff, including a shortage of skilled operators, electricians, mechanics and instrument technicians. The state is working with a contractor to increase the workforce, he added.

Reeves also declined to give a final price for the factory repairs, but he joined Craig in expressing concern that the installation lacks « redundancy » and that something else could break.

EPA monitoring

Jackson’s water system has repeatedly landed on the federal government’s radar, from fault-finding inspections to consent decrees and the focus of the Biden administration’s environmental justice efforts.

The city’s water plant was one of EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s first stops on his « Journey to Justice » tour last year. According to local media, the administrator visited Wilkins Elementary School, which was largely empty after students were forced to move due to problems at the water plant and low water pressure. ‘water.

Now the EPA is stepping in again. The agency said it is coordinating with FEMA on immediate next steps and is deploying a « subject matter expert » to support the emergency assessment of Jackson’s water treatment plants. The EPA also said it is working to address supply chain issues to expedite the delivery of equipment that will directly affect the water treatment plant’s ability to deliver water. safe water.

Personnel issues and technical issues at the plant became a source of tension between the city and the EPA.

Carol Kemker, director of the EPA’s Division of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance at the Region 4 office, told the Mississippi Free Press in an August 26 interview, despite critical staffing shortages threatening the basic operation of the OB Curtis water plant, the agency had seen no visible evidence that the city was making an effort to hire new employees, especially Class A water operators.

Lumumba, the mayor, pushed back at a news conference yesterday, saying Jackson management had repeatedly followed EPA advice and that 10 people are currently being trained to work as operators at the facility.

When asked why the EPA would have no record of the city attempting to staff the plant, the mayor said the agency only sees completed transactions.

Lumumba said that ultimately a lack of resources and coordination hampered efforts to fix the problem and that tackling the crippled water plant in the long term will most likely run into billions of dollars – around $1 billion for water distribution alone – which is « far beyond the reach of the city of Jackson ».

Pointing fingers

The city’s troubles have politicians pointing fingers at how members of Congress voted on Biden’s signature infrastructure package.

Mississippi Sens Republicans. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith took to Twitter yesterday to voice their support for a federal effort to address the city’s water problems, drawing attention to their votes on the infrastructure bill. While Wicker ultimately voted for the measure, Hyde-Smith did not. Representative Bennie Thompson, a Democrat who represents most of Jackson, voted for the legislation, while the other three Mississippi House members, all Republicans, voted against.

The issue is also emerging as a point of debate in the ongoing home race for Missippi’s 3rd District, which includes a small portion of Jackson.

Democrat Shuwaski Young, who is running to oust Republican Representative Michael Guest, Underline Jackson’s crisis on Twitter and highlighted Guest’s vote against the infrastructure package. “Well, the water plant is in our district and he voted AGAINST the infrastructure. Today, thousands of people lack access to their most basic need: water,” Young tweeted.

The guest blamed city leaders squarely, tweeting, « As someone who grew up in the metro area, I remember… when Jackson was the ‘bold new city,’ but after decades of failed leadership, our Capital is now failing The latest water crisis is another in a long list of issues that are resulting from an ongoing standoff at City Hall.

Guest spokesman Rob Pillow said recently that Congressman demand a $2.8 million federal grant for the city’s JH Fewell water treatment plant as part of the House spending bill. Guest staff also visited the water plant last week, he said, and discussed this request and future requests for funding that would help the city meet the needs of its residents.

« The congressman has spoken with FEMA to discuss potential actions for their organization at the federal level, » Pillow said in a statement. « He and his team remain in contact with federal, state and local authorities to discuss additional actions needed at the federal level. »

Journalists Thomas Frank and Timothy Cama contributed.


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