Q&A: How White Flight and Environmental Injustice Led to the Jackson, Mississippi Water Crisis

Mississippi has found itself in a dire position, after a flood left the state’s capital city, Jackson, without water to drink or fight fires. 

Residents, who had actually been under a boil-water advisory since mid-July, were reminded to keep their mouths closed during showers—if they were lucky enough to even have water pressure.

After days without running water, water pressure was back earlier this week, but a boil water advisory remained in effect.

The crisis has played out under the glare of international media while shining a light on Mississippi’s racial divide. Mississippi is dominated politically by white Republicans, while Jackson, population 150,000, is largely Black and run by Democrats. Many white people had fled Jackson in recent decades, taking their wealth with them.

Historic, double-digit rainfall fell in the last week of August across Central Mississippi, causing the Pearl River to overwhelm Jackson’s long-troubled water system, which was already teetering on the brink. By Aug. 29, the city’s overwhelmed O.B. Curtis water treatment plant had failed, and, according to the Clarion Ledger newspaper, at that point, there wasn’t even enough water pressure to consistently flush the toilets.

This was no new problem.

Jackson’s water system has been failing for decades. The city has been under pressure from the EPA for several years to clean up its act. Wednesday, EPA administrator Michael Regan visited Jackson, extending a national focus on the community’s water situation. 

In February 2021, Jackson experienced another system-wide failure due to extreme weather conditions that caused pipes to freeze and lose pressure. This resulted in many areas of the system being without water for several weeks, according to EPA.

EPA joined the Mississippi State Department of Health in a July report that identified a catalog of technical and management problems, including a profound lack of staff dating to at least 2015, including “insufficient operators to consistently staff three shifts, seven days per week,” malfunctioning water meters that contributed to a 32 percent decrease in revenue since 2016, and a billing system without a complete list of customers.

At a press conference last week, during which the governor, Republican Tate Reeves, and the mayor, Democrat Chokwe Antar Lumumba, made an appearance together, a reporter asked, “How can this happen in America, in 2022?”

“You and the press want to play the blame game, pitting one against another and that is fine,” Tate said. “We are focused on the immediate health and welfare of Jackson citizens.”

But he added, “We find ourselves in this position because of a lot of different reasons … of what occurred over a long period of time.” And, he said, because of “the 14 inches of rain that fell.”

Lumumba said: “This is a set of accumulated challenges that have taken place over three decades. My interest is unchanged. The city needs resources. We need money. We are focused on operational unity now.”

To get some additional perspective on the Jackson situation, Inside Climate News reached out to Heather McTeer Toney, who in 2004 became the first woman, first African American and youngest person to serve as mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. She served as EPA regional administrator for the EPA’s Southeast region from 2014 to 2017, during the Obama administration. She’s now vice president of community engagement for the Environmental Defense Fund, a national environmental group.

The following is a transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity, and for length. 

James Bruggers: Climate change seems to be very good at finding our vulnerabilities. Whether it’s in the form of more potent hurricanes or excessive heat waves, or extended droughts and sea rise. You have said climate change made matters worse in Jackson. How so?

Heather McTeer Toney: Climate change is what is happening to us right now. It’s like smoke that can find its way into any single crevice that exists. It’s going to be able to get through and expand, and we’re going to see very quickly where we have some vulnerabilities and opportunities to really improve. So as we think about infrastructure, which is the critical issue that is being dealt with right now in Jackson, Mississippi, that is one of the ways where we will see vulnerabilities pop up, particularly in low-income and marginalized communities around the country. And it’s happening not just in the United States, but around the world. We have looked at the devastating floods that are taking place in Pakistan, which are not too different than the horrific floods that took place last summer in Germany. And it is very similar to what is happening in Jackson, Mississippi in terms of the impact of extreme weather on our infrastructure. As we experience more extreme weather, stronger storms, floods that come and sit over places for longer periods of time, wildfires, tornadoes and hurricanes—the extreme weather events are becoming more extreme, and that will cause more pressure to be placed on an already crumbling infrastructure. And it identifies how and where we must invest in climate-resilient measures to ensure that we’re protecting communities.

Heather McTeer Toney is a senior advisor for Moms Clean Air Force, as well as a vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund. Previously, she served in the Obama administration as Region 4 administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, as she is a former mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. Credit: Ralph Alswang
Heather McTeer Toney is a former senior advisor for Moms Clean Air Force, as well as a vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund. Previously, she served in the Obama administration as Region 4 administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, as she is a former mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. Credit: Ralph Alswang

Bruggers: I noticed that just this week, thousands of people were lined up for bottled water in Summerville, Georgia after a foot of rain fell, and flash floods submerged their drinking water system. That’s basically what happened in Jackson.

McTeer Toney: The water system was submerged. And water systems, wastewater sewer systems and drinking water systems, they’re underground. The pipes are running under the soil, concrete and asphalt. Let’s take, for example, the water pressure dropping. When that happens, it’s usually a result of some break in the system. And either soil or contaminants or pollution can get into the system, thereby causing the water that comes out the faucet to come out not only slower because it’s blocked, but also with contaminants that can be harmful to human health. So as a result of that, people are using other sources and means of water including bottled water to be able to not only bathe themselves but drink and go about their normal course of day. There are a number of different ways this can happen. And we’re seeing it happen more and more often.

Bruggers: For people who may not have been following Jackson’s decades-long saga with its failing water system, how did it get this way?

McTeer Toney: How long do we have?

Bruggers: You don’t have to answer it all with this one question. But yeah, how did it get this way?

McTeer Toney: Well, Jackson’s water system has been in the process of some type of maintenance or upkeep dating back to the ‘70s. Which, when you think about it, it’s not unusual that systems are in a constant state of maintenance and improvement, especially in capital cities, because that’s the center of government of the state. And it’s usually the high point in the state, places where people come in doing business, but also tourism. So typically, it’s the place that you want to make sure that the infrastructure is at a minimum, where you’re maintaining it, you’re keeping it up. Jackson’s system has not always been treated that way. And certainly, there have been a number of local leaders that have done extensive work to try to not only get the state legislature to help support the infrastructure water system in Jackson but also to encourage the local community to be able to help cover the costs of upgrades to the water system that would usually happen in a state capitol. So the people who live in the state capitol are paying taxes in that particular community. And those are part of the proceeds that go towards maintaining any type of infrastructure, be it your water system, your sidewalks, your streets. That’s the way that local government works. 

But there has been such an exodus of population from the urban center of Jackson to suburban areas, what can be identified as white flight, where you have the white population that moves to the surrounding area. And as a result, the internal city center does not receive the same benefits as it would have had that population remained there, because there is an exodus of wealth. And I think that’s a whole other conversation because that is something that happens across the state, as well as other states in the union. But also, the support from the state to maintain the water system in which the state body sits has not been supported in Mississippi in the way that it should be, as well as in the way that it has been in other states.

Bruggers: EPA has had the city under enforcement action to bring the water system and compliance for several years now. And that may have started under your leadership as regional administrator when the agency found concerns with lead. I’m just curious: What is the role of the EPA right now, and going forward?

McTeer Toney: To the best of my knowledge, the agency is working right now both on a regional and a headquarters level to address and understand what are the immediate needs to public health in the community. And that is what EPA absolutely should be doing because the EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. Human health comes first in that sentence. And, they are actively looking and working alongside both local leaders as well as the congressional leaders—Congressman (Bennie) Thompson (whose district includes Jackson)—and making sure that they are addressing those health priorities first, as they are identifying the next steps of a local plan of action. It’s going to take some time, quite frankly, to not only understand the scope and magnitude of what needs to be done, but how to do it in an efficient manner, such that the citizens are not penalized and that the water system can be brought to a place where it is restored, maintained and becomes resilient. They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them.

Bruggers: What does it say about our country or Mississippi that this capital city can’t provide reliable safe drinking water to its residents? And sometimes not enough water pressure to fight fires? 

McTeer Toney: It says we need to pay a heck of a lot more attention to what happens in communities that are environmental justice communities and communities of color all across this country, because it should not have had to happen like this. We should not be standing in awe at the fact that Jackson had such a catastrophic impact to its infrastructure when we all know and talk about the traumatic impacts from the climate crisis. And we also look quite often at how we can help to restore and really talk about climate resiliency in communities across this country. 

Cases of bottled water are handed out at a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition distribution site on Aug. 31, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. Credit: Brad Vest/Getty Images
Cases of bottled water are handed out at a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition distribution site on Aug. 31, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. Credit: Brad Vest/Getty Images

It is very unfortunate that it has taken this type of event to raise attention to the country as well as the world that this is what will happen if we do not invest seriously and heavily into communities that need climate resilient infrastructure right now, today. But also that the same things that we see happen in other countries that we tend to think of as, quote, third world countries, can happen in the United States. And other places are also looking to the United States to see how we’re addressing these issues. It’s my hope that we continue to raise awareness and understand what needs to be done after this storm cycle and the water pressure gets restored,  after people can get water back into their homes, that we don’t completely forget about this and say, ‘Oh, well, they’ll figure it out.’ Or, ‘Oh, those poor residents in Mississippi,’ or, ‘Oh, you know, why don’t they just do X, Y and Z.’ 

Bruggers: As you’ve noted, other cities have struggled to have basic reliable, safe water systems. Black communities like Flint, Michigan, for example, or rural white communities like Eastern Kentucky’s Martin County. And one thing that these communities often share is high poverty rates. When you look at Jackson’s water system problems through an environmental justice lens, what do you see?

McTeer Toney: You see people of color, we see Black and brown communities that have not had the benefit of maintenance and upkeep as other communities have. Jackson, Mississippi looks a lot like places, you’re right, in Eastern Kentucky. It looks like Indigenous communities that have gone without. When you ride in a community and you look at whether or not they have sidewalks, curbs and gutters or it’s just an open ditch next to the houses where kids are walking along, I think the poverty, regardless of what the demographics are of a community, are indicative of environmental justice, and we can’t continue to ignore that. That’s what I have seen when traveling across the country and talking about not only environmental justice needs but also opportunities.

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Bruggers: Estimates of fixing this problem in Jackson seem to start at about a billion dollars. And the Biden administration has scored some historic victories for infrastructure spending, but probably not that much for just one community. What opportunities do you see that are available right now to at least get started on the problem? And do you have any concerns that the governor or the state will work cooperatively with the city?

McTeer Toney: These are certainly situations where we’re going to have to work through political differences in order to provide the best benefit for people in the community. And whether you are Republican, Democrat, Independent, it doesn’t matter: You want to make sure that your toilet flushes at the end of the day, and that you can ride down the streets. And that is the obligation of leaders. And I am very hopeful that the leaders will begin to work together or continue working together. I feel confident that they’re going to figure it out. 

That being said, it is not going to be easy. And I think there’s an obligation for both the city, the state and the federal government to understand how they can leverage what is available in each of those spaces. And let’s not leave out the business community, let’s not leave out philanthropy, let’s not leave out the opportunities that exist to really support and maintain strong systems through innovation. And I think that these are the ways that maybe can provide some bridges between the differences of political ideology. And I think there are some definite opportunities in existing legislation. There are so many different aspects here to look at. Certainly, the federal state and local government, and business philanthropy community can come together to figure this out.

Bruggers: I really appreciate you helping our readers better understand the situation in Jackson and providing some additional perspective that they may not have gotten when they just watch CNN or something.

McTeer Toney: I hope we continue to have awareness of what’s happening in Jackson, as well as how we can prevent it from happening in other places. It’s my hope that we have innovative people around this country putting the pieces together in their own brains to figure out we ensure that we’re helping, but also preventing and becoming more resilient across this country. The more we’re able to do that and share these best practices and not leave this in the wind somewhere—because you know, this is Flint, all over again. Flint was lead and water. This is water system infrastructure and water. Both have a similar state response in the neglect of poor communities. So how do we address the neglect of poor communities with respect to public health, which is water and water infrastructure? Those are the questions that we should be asking each other and trying to find the solutions to today.

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                <img width="300" height="300" src="https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/jim-300x300.jpg" class="attachment-thumbnail-medium-square size-thumbnail-medium-square" alt="James Bruggers" srcset="https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/jim-300x300.jpg 300w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/jim-150x150.jpg 150w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/jim-64x64.jpg 64w, https://insideclimatenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/jim-600x600.jpg 600w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px">
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                <a href="https://insideclimatenews.org/profile/james-bruggers/">
                    James Bruggers                  </a>


                <h4 class="profile-subtitle">Reporter, Southeast, National Environment Reporting Network</h4>

                James Bruggers covers the U.S. Southeast, part of Inside Climate News’ National Environment Reporting Network. He previously covered energy and the environment for Louisville’s Courier Journal, where he worked as a correspondent for USA Today and was a member of the USA Today Network environment team. Before moving to Kentucky in 1999, Bruggers worked as a journalist in Montana, Alaska, Washington and California. Bruggers’ work has won numerous recognitions, including best beat reporting, Society of Environmental Journalists, and the National Press Foundation’s Thomas Stokes Award for energy reporting. He served on the board of directors of the SEJ for 13 years, including two years as president. He lives in Louisville with his wife, Christine Bruggers.

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