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How Environmental Racism and Corporate Mismanagement Caused the Jackson Water Crisis

By Mary Riddle
Jackson

U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District engineers onsite at Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant on September 1, 2022, after receiving a FEMA mission assignment to perform assessments of the plant's pumping and electrical systems.

In late August, flooding in Jackson, Mississippi, caused the city’s main water treatment plant to fail, leaving its 150,000 residents without access to water to drink, flush toilets or fight fires.

Environmental racism an underlying cause of the Jackson crisis

Jackson has been plagued in recent years by water problems. In 2021, the city was under a boil water advisory for 225 days. That year, the city asked for $47 million to update its failing water infrastructure, but the state refused, giving the state’s capital city only $3 million. Jackson is a majority-Black city that overwhelmingly votes Democratic, which often places the city at loggerheads with the state government’s Republican majority.

“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 earlier this month. “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.”

Additional interviews by The Hill’s Zack Budryk and Cheyanne M. Daniels revealed frustration from local activists who noted that nearby majority-white cities don’t share Jackson’s ongoing problems with water infrastructure.

How a multinational further damaged Jackson’s water infrastructure

The current crisis came on the heels of a boil water advisory that came into effect in July when state health officials warned the public about cloudy water. 

The state’s water problems are old and complex. Most wastewater plants have a lifespan of 40 years, but one of Jackson’s main wastewater facilities is more than 100 years old

As local Jackson reporters have long covered, in 2013 the city contracted with Siemens to fix Jackson’s aging water infrastructure and install a new billing system, paying the corporation over $94 million. Siemens began its efforts to secure a contract with Jackson in 2010. In various pitch emails, the company guaranteed at least $120 million in savings for the city, and also guaranteed that the savings from the new, repaired infrastructure and billing mechanisms would cover the cost of the project itself. 

Instead of providing the city with repairs and additional revenue, the company — as independent journalist Judd Legum of Popular Information explained in detail last week — contributed even more problems to Jackson’s ongoing struggles with its water systems. Among various problems, the new billing system malfunctioned and left the city with an unpaid water bill balance of over $43 million. Siemens also used a series of subcontractors that acted as pass-throughs and inflated the price of equipment. Subcontractors purchased equipment from manufacturers and then sold them to Siemens for a hefty markup. The city, now bearing the cost of the contract, damages and the unpaid bill balance, was forced to use general funds and issue bonds to make repairs. Though the city settled with Siemens in 2019, the cost of the settlement did not cover the cost of damages. 

What happens now? 

As of last week, the city’s water pressure had been restored, though it is still not drinkable. The mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, has warned that increased pressure could lead to burst pipes, and the Mississippi National Guard is continuing to distribute bottled water to residents who can travel to distribution points. 

The crisis in Jackson is the result of decades of the state refusing to invest in infrastructure within a poor, majority-Black city. Jackson is 80 percent Black, and per-capita income is under $23,000 — even less than the entire state of Mississippi ($25,400), one of the poorer U.S. states. The poverty rate in the city is close to 25 percent.

The estimated cost to completely repair Jackson’s water infrastructure is an estimated $1 billion. However, during the 2021 water crisis, when asked about providing additional funding to make critical repairs to Jackson’s water infrastructure, Mississippi's Republican governor, Tate Reeves, replied, “I do think it's really important that the city of Jackson start collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money.” But again, as Legum has pointed out, the new automatic water meters that Siemens and its various subcontractors installed across Jackson didn’t function properly. Many residents never received any bills, while others received statements asking for inaccurate and unusually high amounts.

Schools in Jackson have been closed while they are without water, but the recent increase in water pressure was substantial enough to allow for the reopening of schools. While this is more positive news, Mayor Lumumba reminded residents this week that the water crisis is far from over. In an interview with ABC, he said, “Even when the pressure is restored, even when we’re not under a boil-water notice, it’s not a matter of if these systems will fail, but when these systems will fail.” 

Image credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District Website

Mary Riddle headshot

Mary Riddle is a writer and sustainability consultant based in Florence, Italy. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. Currently, she and her husband also own and operate Italy in Season, a subscription box company with a mission to support small-scale Italian artisans and traditional craftsmanship. 

Read more stories by Mary Riddle