A pot of unspent federal money could have prevented Jackson’s water crisis

A pot of unspent federal money could have prevented Jackson’s water crisis

Late in the summer of 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency sent the Mississippi state government a routine report assessing its use of federal funding for water infrastructure. The agency concluded with the words “no findings” — that is, the EPA found no issue with how Mississippi was spending its money.

The very next day, on August 29, as many as 180,000 residents in the Jackson area lost access to clean drinking water and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba both declared a state of emergency. 

More than 12 inches of rain had fallen across the region, causing the Pearl River, which begins about 75 miles northeast of Jackson and flows south to the Gulf Coast, to flood. Jackson’s main water treatment plant was overrun. Water pressure throughout the system plunged, leaving residents — along with hospitals and fire stations — without safe drinking water. Many homes had no water at all. Images of the National Guard distributing cases of bottled water to residents in miles-long queues flashed across screens. Contrary to the EPA’s conclusion, now public in a new report by researchers at the Project for Government Oversight, or POGO, the state’s capital was one heavy rainfall away from a public health crisis that captured the attention of the nation. 

Nearly two years later, thousands of residents across Jackson are still contending with low pressure and brown water. While blame for the crisis has largely fallen on the state and local governments, POGO​, a nonpartisan group that investigates waste, corruption, and abuses of power, spotlights the EPA’s role. The researchers obtained hundreds of documents that reveal a “troubling trend”: EPA officials knew that not enough federal funding was being dispersed by the state to Jackson for infrastructure improvements, and they failed to make note of these practices in their assessments. 

“EPA oversight is very important,” said Nick Schwellenbach, one of the researchers on POGO’s report. “The agency can’t force states to spend money in a certain way, but its oversight can nudge and prod states toward best practices.” The investigation highlights a breakdown in communication between different arms of the EPA: While the agency has been diligent about flagging drinking water issues in Jackson — suing the city in 2020 for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act — its supervision of the state’s use of federal dollars for water infrastructure updates has been limited. 

“There’s a lot that EPA oversight can do to head off disaster,” Schwellenbach said. “EPA was saying [to Jackson], ‘You’re out of compliance with federal law’ but wasn’t going to the state and saying, ‘What are you doing to help?’”

A Mississippi National Guard member directs traffic at a water distribution site in Jackson, Mississippi, in September 2022. Rory Doyle / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Long before the heavy rains that set off Jackson’s water crisis, the city’s infrastructure had been crumbling due to decades of neglect. Like many other midsize cities across the country — Memphis, St. Louis, Pittsburgh — Jackson experienced a decline in the late-20th century after its white, middle-class residents moved to the suburbs, severely limiting tax dollars available for infrastructure improvements. Today, Jackson is more than 80 percent Black, up from 50 percent in the 1980s, and a quarter of its residents live in poverty. As a result of the shifting demographics, the city council became majority-Black and Democrat, and by the 1980s, friction with the mostly white Republican state government had developed. 

When Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996, it established a program whereby municipalities could use federal funding to update their beleaguered water infrastructure. The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund is administered by state environment departments, which review applications by local governments and distribute funding in the form of loans each year. In accordance with the fund, the EPA is responsible for making annual reports on where the money is going. According to the agency, its audits are parts of a “circle of accountability,” and are meant to “guide funding decisions and program management policies.” But in the case of Jackson, the reports seem to have functioned as a “rubber stamp” of Mississippi’s management of the fund, POGO researchers wrote. 

Multiple arms of the EPA flagged issues with the agency’s oversight of the fund over the past decade. The Office of Inspector General, or OIG, the agency’s internal watchdog, found issues with the reports stretching back to 2011 and as recently as last year. In a 2014 document, the OIG noted that the EPA’s audits often do little to ensure that federal dollars from the fund go to communities with the greatest public health need or to disadvantaged communities — which, as POGO researchers pointed out, are often one and the same. Then, in a 2017 internal memo that the POGO report surfaced, EPA officials cited an unspent pool of money in Mississippi that represented “unrealized potential to protect public health.” That year, the agency’s regional office sent Mississippi a gleaming audit.  

While Mississippi has historically enjoyed generous allocations from the fund, with more than $260 million allotted between 2017 and 2021 alone, the city of Jackson has not reaped the benefits. In a civil rights complaint filed with the EPA in 2022, the NAACP noted that Jackson has received loans just three times in the program’s 25-year history. The Bear Creek Water Authority in the largely rural and white Madison County, by comparison, received funds nine out of the past 25 years. (The EPA dismissed the NAACP complaint earlier this month.) 

The Mississippi state government has denied that Jackson received less funding than other parts of the state, with Governor Tate Reeves writing in 2022 that there is “no factual basis whatsoever to suggest that there has been an ‘underinvestment’ in the city.” His account, the POGO researchers noted, does not acknowledge the state’s historically unforgiving loan program and the city’s wariness of taking on debt. 

Part of the problem, Schwellenbach noted, is that the EPA does not proactively make its oversight reports public. To complete its investigation, Schwellenbach’s team had to request hundreds of records through a freedom of information request. In addition to reviewing the EPA’s program assessments for dozens of states, which they compared to Mississippi, the researchers read through internal EPA memos and inspector general reports and interviewed EPA staffers to develop a comprehensive picture of the agency’s knowledge of conditions in Jackson. 

“The EPA’s reviews of state programs are something of a black hole,” Janet Pritchard, the director of water infrastructure policy for the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, told POGO. “While some states have recently revised how they define ‘disadvantaged communities’ and other policies that govern the distribution of state revolving fund awards … the extent or impact of EPA engagement remains unclear.” Johnnie Purify, an EPA staffer in the Region 4 office, which oversees Mississippi, told POGO that he “has no concerns with making EPA oversight reports public, and said they would be helpful to external parties and the public at large.”

The EPA’s failure to alert Mississippi about its uneven distribution of federal funds has had severe consequences for the people of Jackson, where brown-tinged water continues to flow out of taps across the city. These days, as little as a powerful thunderstorm can upset the fragile water infrastructure and upend residents’ lives for weeks. The ongoing crisis has also contributed to further population decline: Last year, the Clarion Ledger reported that Jackson is the fastest shrinking city in the nation.

The city of Jackson’s O.B. Curtis Water Plant in September 2022. Steve Helber / AP Photo

In November 2022, a federal judge appointed Ted Henifin, an engineer by training, to manage the city’s water system. Local advocates initially felt hopeful that Henifin’s expertise would go far toward improving conditions in the water system, but over time, they became frustrated by what they perceived as a lack of transparency in his decision-making. 

In December 2022, the Biden administration announced a $600 million allocation in the bipartisan infrastructure law for Jackson to repair its water system, a historic sum that Henifin has the authority to use as he chooses. In early 2023, Henifin established JXN Water, a private company, to update the city’s water system, prompting fears from the public that the system itself may soon be privatized, and fueling concerns about transparency, as corporations are not subject to public disclosure laws. Repeated requests by local advocates for data on water-sampling efforts have gone unanswered. Local advocates also became frustrated after Henifin inexplicably fired Tariq Abdul-Tawwab, a long-time community advocate and the only Black employee at JXN Water. Last summer, Henifin told a federal judge that there was “no health risk” in the drinking water that he was aware of, despite reports that some residents’ tap water was still the color of tea.

After his firing, Abdul-Tawwab began managing the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition’s ground support team, a group of emergency responders that work on “anything that the community needs help with that the state is not helping them with, and that the city may not have the resources to help with,” he told Grist. Residents call in to request assistance on a range of issues — leaky roofs, burst sewage pipes — but the most common complaint is the drinking water. Members of Abdul-Tawwab’s team spend much of their time delivering bottled water and filters and testing residents’ taps for heavy metals like lead or bacteria like E. coli. The results often come back positive. 

While he was careful not to get into the details of his firing, Abdul-Tawwab was open about his frustrations with Henifin’s management of Jackson’s financial resources. Journalists occasionally visit Jackson to report on the decrepit infrastructure, he said, but hardly ask questions about where the federal money meant to help residents is actually going. 

“Anyone in the United States of America reading this story needs to understand that the state of Mississippi is taking steps to make sure that Jackson doesn’t get what it needs,” Abdul-Tawwab said.

In an email, Henifin told Grist  that he stood by his statement that Jackson’s water is clean, noting that JXN Water conducts regular tests in accordance with federal permitting requirements. He also stated that brown water complaints are investigated as soon as they are received through the company’s call center, and that they don’t occur often. 

“JXN Water posts all Quarterly Reports on our website, hosts quarterly public meetings to address questions, and regularly speaks to community groups when invited to participate in their meetings,” he wrote. “Transparency is not an issue.”

However, the many Jackson residents that Grist has interviewed point out that while the water coming out of the city’s treatment plants may be clean, after it has traveled through the thousands of miles of pipes, the water comes out of their faucets in a vastly different condition. Requests for extensive testing of the network of pipes have sometimes gone unanswered, said Brooke Floyd, a director at the People’s Advocacy Institute, the organization that launched the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition. She said she found it hard to believe that, as Henifin told Grist, residents were not reporting contaminated water to JXN Water’s call center, since the ground team gets frequent reports of water “with stuff floating in it.” 

Floyd acknowledged that JXN Water is proactive about posting its reports on its Facebook page, but said that advocates’ concerns about transparency go beyond the quarterly paperwork — they want to be involved in making decisions. Last month, a federal judge granted advocates at the Mississippi Poor Peoples’ Campaign and the Peoples’ Advocacy Institute their request to become parties to the EPA’s lawsuit against the city of Jackson. A seat at the table of the legal proceedings, they hope, will allow them to have a say in how federal funds are spent and ward off threats of privatization.

“When Henifin leaves, and the DOJ and the EPA leave, because they will, whatever is done — we will have to live with that,” Floyd said. She pointed to Flint, Michigan, where more than a decade after that city’s lead water crisis began, the system is still not fixed.

Schwellenbach, the POGO researcher, pointed out that the situation in Jackson is emblematic of a systemic problem, and could be a harbinger of worse things to come if the EPA does not step up its oversight. He pointed to Memphis, where the aging water system is coming under stress from climate-related impacts and years of disinvestment. The bipartisan infrastructure law represented a massive infusion of federal dollars to help cities update their water infrastructure, but to make sure the funds are used to actually help communities, the EPA needs to step up its involvement. 

“The EPA could have raised red flags earlier and more aggressively to push the states to do the right thing,” he said. “I think the most important thing here is to learn lessons from what went wrong, so we don’t have these kinds of crises in the future.”


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