Energy & Environment

Water crisis in Jackson, Miss., raises concerns about environmental racism

As tens of thousands of residents of Jackson, Miss., remain without clean water, some advocates say the situation stems from years of environmental racism.

More than 80 percent of Jackson residents are Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. On Monday, those residents saw their main water treatment facility fail in the wake of flooding, leaving them without clean water for drinking, bathing or cooking.

“While the recent flooding has been a contributor to where we are today, this is not the first time this issue has come about, where the city of Jackson is without water and unable to function,” Vangela Wade, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, told The Hill. “Over the last 50 years, you could say that this has been brewing because of the lack of investment in the city’s infrastructure by primarily state leadership.”

The latest water issues come after the last two years saw the city’s water system fail an Environmental Protection Agency inspection — which found the drinking water had the potential to host harmful bacteria or parasites — and the bursting and freezing of pipes during a winter storm last year left residents without water for nearly a month.

But advocates say the crisis has been decades in the making. Jackson first became a majority-Black city in the years following integration. The white population fell from 52 percent to 43 percent through the 1980s, with another 35,000 leaving the city over the course of the 1990s, according to The Jackson Free Press.

This population loss has reduced the city’s tax base and left it with far less money for basic resources, and the city’s water infrastructure has felt the strain before, most recently in March 2021, when Jackson imposed a boil-water advisory. 

“We have a really aged system that the city’s annual budget, the revenue that the city brings in, is insufficient to meet that need,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D) said at the time.

Speaking to ABC News Wednesday, Lumumba said the latest water crisis “is due to decades, decades and decades, of possibly 30 years or more of deferred maintenance, a lack of capital improvements made to the system, a lack of a human capital, a workforce plan that accounted for the challenges that our water treatment facility suffers from.”

While the city tried to fight the loss of water by handing out free bottled water to residents earlier this week, they quickly ran out. Now, some of that responsibility has fallen to local community organizations. 

For years, the anti-violence prevention program Operation Good has been delivering water to residents across the city. Gino, who is the founder of the organization and asked not to have his last name published, said his group began handing out water back in 2015.

“This is nothing new for us,” said Gino, adding that the group prioritizes taking care of the elderly and disabled first, following up with children and those living in poverty. More recently, he added, they’ve been bringing water pallets to different schools that contacted Operation Good in desperate need of providing for their students.

Gino said he doesn’t normally use terms like “environmental racism” but added he knows “surrounding cities that are majority white that don’t have infrastructure problems like Jackson.”

“Jackson’s infrastructure problems are horrendous,” he said. “For us to be the capital city of the state of Mississippi, it does not receive the attention, financing and things of that nature that it should.” 

Gino said children in the city are exposed to raw sewage so often, they’ve become immune to it: it’s in their bathing water, it’s in their cooking water, it’s in their drinking water. And through it all, residents have still received water bills.

“It always felt like it was a ‘Jackson problem,’ not a Mississippi problem,” Gino said. “It was a Black-people problem, not a majority-of-the-state problem.”

Civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis coined the term “environmental racism” in the 1980s in response to the decision to site a landfill for hazardous chemical waste in a predominantly Black North Carolina town. Sociologist Robert Bullard later defined the concept as “any policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (where intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race.”

Although there have been cases dubbed examples of environmental racism that involve active wrongdoing, advocates say it can also apply in situations where issues affecting nonwhite communities are simply considered less urgent or more acceptable.

”What it means is that communities of color, particularly in this case, Black communities, are considered sacrifice communities, so that they aren’t receiving the same attention as their white counterparts because they’re not deemed to be important,” Adrienne Hollis, vice president for environmental justice, health, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, told The Hill.

In addition to neglected infrastructure, she said, this can mean the location of high-pollution facilities in poor or minority neighborhoods and areas where residents “aren’t provided the opportunity to improve their economic situation.”

The Jackson crisis is part of “the conversations about how Black communities are deprioritized when it comes to ensuring that there’s infrastructure planning, ensuring there is resiliency built within the communities,” said Abre’ Conner, director of environmental and climate justice at the NAACP. “[Jackson] is just a failure of individuals who have the power to ensure that the infrastructure is there [to] actually acting on it and ensure that a predominantly Black community actually has water and other infrastructure that is needed when there is a disaster that actually hits.”

This week, #jxnwatercrisis and #jacksonwatercrisis trended on Twitter as residents posted photos of discolored water. President Biden declared the crisis an emergency, freeing up federal resources to help the state’s response.

But the city’s Democratic leaders and state Republican leadership have frequently sparred over where responsibility lies for fixing the capital’s water infrastructure. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann (R) said in response to the 2021 crisis that “the prime mover needs to be the city itself.”

Gino remains frustrated with local leaders, saying history has shown money has not gone to those who really need it.

“Officials … see this city drowning, but instead of reaching in with a helping hand, they dodge it because we’re dealing with Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “But the people of Jackson don’t give a damn about Republicans or Democrats, they’re all the same to the people of Jackson because they’re not doing [anything]. Forget about the politics and think about the people.” 

A long-term solution, according to Conner of the NAACP, would involve resiliency planning that accounts for decades of neglect in communities like Jackson. 

“That is part of planning for a climate crisis,” she said. “And so if the infrastructure is not there, and you do have those impacts of the climate crisis that are now coming to the hilt, then Black communities are now going to feel that impact.”

Energy & Environment