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Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude

Jackson, Miss--Like Other Black Cities--Keeps Facing Water Crises. Who's To Blame?

Jackson was recently hit with yet another boil water advisory. Why do these water crises keep happening in predominantly Black cities?

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Jackson, Mississippi Water Crisis
Jackson, Mississippi Water Crisis
Photo: Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images (Getty Images)

The city of Jackson, Mississippi, has almost become synonymous with the words, water and crisis. Once again, thousands of residents are without water after freezing temperatures likely caused pipes to burst throughout the city’s aging infrastructure.

You’ll probably recall that in August, residents went weeks without clean running water due to excessive rainfall. And that in 2021, a different winter storm led to weeks of boil water advisories city-wide.

What you might not know, is that over the last two years, the city of Jackson has issued more than 300 boil water notices. Residents have also complained about lead contamination in the water.

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This is obviously not the first Black lower-income city with a water crisis. (Jackson is 82 percent Black, btw).

In Flint, it was revealed that roughly 9,000 children were exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water. Thousands of other residents were exposed to lead and water-based pathogens leading to the deaths of several residents.

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Then there’s Denmark, South Carolina. For more than a decade, the city was pumping a non-EPA approved chemical, HaloSan, into the city’s drinking water.

The problems in all three cities are fairly different, but they share at least one thing in common: they’re all happening in predominantly Black and low-income communities.

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The question on everyone’s mind is why do these water crises keep occuring in Black cities, and what would it take to make them stop?

In Jackson, a lot of the blame for the crisis has fallen on Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves.

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In September, the NAACP filed a federal complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency alleging that Mississippi’s mishandling of the water crisis violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In their complaint, the organization specifically called out Reeves for his “racist funding policies.”

They alleged that instead of providing infrastructure funds to Jackson (which clearly needed it), Reeves prioritized sending infrastructure money to “smaller majority-white communities with less acute needs.” (It’s worth noting that the system that failed over the summer was more than 50 years old).

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Unsurprisingly, Governor Reeves has placed the blame on city officials for not prioritizing their own infrastructure, stating that he gave the city “90 million” but they decided to spend it on “other things.”

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, responded by saying the city “never received anywhere near $90 million” and has continued to place the blame on the governor for the lack of state funds.

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However, residents of Jackson haven’t exactly let the Mayor off the hook. A class action lawsuit filed by several residents in Jackson listed The City of Jackson, Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba; Tony Yarber; Kishia Powell; Robert Miller; Jerriot Smash; Siemens Corporation; Siemens Industry, Inc.; and Trilogy Engineering Services LLC. all as culpable.

The City of Jackson and the Mayor’s Office previously declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

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The lawsuit alleges that all of the parties had a responsibility to ensure clean drinking water to residents, and failed.

Part of the bigger problem here, says Sacoby Wilson, a Professor of Environmental Justice at The University of Maryland School of Public Health, is that years of neglect have left the city’s infrastructure extremely vulnerable to climate change-related severe weather events.

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“You have old infrastructure. You have systemic racism, and you have climate change, all coming together,” Wilson told The Root.

In Jackson, Flint, and Denmark, all roads lead back to egregious levels of negligence on the part of government officials.

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In 2014, Michigan state officials decided to cut costs by switching Flint’s water supply from Detroit to the Flint river. The only problem was that the water was highly corrosive and was left untreated, causing lead to leach from the aging pipes into thousands of homes, poisoning children and adults throughout the city. Other serious contaminants also flowed from the pipes killing 12 people and sickening at least 87 others.

Former-Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder was charged with two misdemeanors for his part in the crisis, although the charges against him were dismissed this year.

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In Denmark, South Carolina, officials straight-up allowed a non-EPA pesticide to be pumped into the water without properly checking whether or not it was safe.

Deanna Miller Berry, who helped discover the problem, says residents “knew something was happening to the water,” but it was hard to get the issue taken seriously. “A lot of folks [were complaining that they were starting to get sick, hair loss and skin issues.”

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South Carolina state and local officials claimed that they thought HaloSan was safe to drink based on the way it was “advertised.”

“It was our thinking that it was an approved chemical to be used,” Denmark Mayor Gerald Wright told CNN. “We rely totally on DHEC because they have the responsibility and expertise to test, monitor and advise.”

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Un-fun fact, according to the EPA, HaloSan can cause “significant eye and skin irritant. Burning, rash, itching, skin, discoloration/redness,” and “blistering.”

In each of these cases, government officials’ negligence had massive health consequences for communities with historically very little recourse to fight back.

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New federal infrastructure money does provide some glimmer of hope, says Waikinya Clanton, Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center Mississippi State Office.

“The approval of federal funds could not have come at a more opportune and urgent time for the city,” says Clanton. “It is now up to the local and state government officials to do their due diligence in ensuring that the people of Jackson get the help and support they need during this highly difficult and uncertain time. We can’t prevent weather, but we can prepare for it.”