The drinking water disaster in Jackson, Miss., injects new urgency into a looming challenge for President Joe Biden: getting federal money to communities that need it most.
The problem is most acute for poor communities with large minority populations — the ones the Biden administration hopes to help with promises to pump money into places wracked by decades of pollution and inequality.
Torrential rains shut down Jackson’s long-running sewage treatment plant this week, sparking a crisis that has left more than 150,000 of the city’s 160,000 residents without drinking water. Mississippians and advocates in communities facing disproportionate pollution burdens said Democratic-controlled Jackson is just the latest majority-black city to fight for its fair share of spending in Republican-dominated states.
The OB Curtis water treatment plant is at the center of a decades-long debate over which entity has responsibility for funding long-needed repairs. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said repairing the city’s water system could cost more than $1 billion.
State Republican leaders have accused the city of mismanaging the facility, while Jackson officials said few cities could afford the kinds of costly upgrades needed using only utility revenue and municipal resources. However, some elected Democratic officials, such as Rep. Bennie Thompson, have also expressed some frustration with the city.
For Biden, who has made helping these types of disadvantaged communities a priority, funneling money through state governments unwilling to cede control to the federal government is a major hurdle, according to Mississippi supporters and officials. Jackson officials complained that the state Legislature was too slow to distribute federal money from the pandemic stimulus to cities that needed it, taking until April to approve spending measures from that stimulus in March 2021.
“The federal government is going to have to find ways to bypass these Republican-controlled governors and legislatures to get money into the hands of cities that are going to become Democratic strongholds,” said Kali Akuno, co-director of Cooperation . Jackson, an environmental and climate justice organization in Jackson.
“Mississippi typifies this in a lot of ways,” said Acuno, who spoke by phone while scouring the Jackson area for water bottles as part of the emergency response effort. “But I think we’re a canary in the coal mine for what’s coming down the road for a lot of municipalities that have similar infrastructure problems.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who was one of 10 Republicans who joined Senate Democrats in voting for last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, told CNN that the facility has deteriorated in part because “there were tax base problems with population decline.” Jackson.
But he added that there is “money in the pipeline,” with the $429 million Mississippi will receive from the new bipartisan infrastructure law to upgrade water and sewer systems. But he said more federal help will be needed now “to save lives, homes and the future of our great city.”
Jackson is emblematic of the kind of communities Biden said he wanted to help with his Justice40 Initiative, which aims to deliver federal dollars to areas long overlooked for federal investment. Many of these neighborhoods are communities of color that face steeper socioeconomic barriers as a result of racist practices like redlining.
The lack of investment in Jackson follows a familiar pattern seen in many majority-black cities in the South, Midwest and other parts of the United States, said Joan Wesley, an associate professor of community development and housing concentration at Jackson State University. Jackson’s infrastructure struggles began decades earlier, as tens of thousands of white residents left for the suburbs.
Jackson is now 82 percent Black and overwhelmingly Democratic — a blue dot in a deep red state with a Republican legislative supermajority and governor. That has created a sense of being neglected by state GOP officials.
“Governments need to understand that they are governing for everyone and not just for a select group of people or their supporters,” said Wesley, who works on environmental justice issues throughout the Gulf Coast. “He just seems to be shaking like that. It certainly seems that way.”
Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, did not respond to a request for comment.
Environmental justice advocates urged the Biden administration to come up with creative ways to get dollars to places like Jackson. They fear a repeat of the episode when GOP governors rejected incentives to expand Medicaid coverage as part of former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
The Bezos Earth Fund, created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is funding a project led by three environmental justice organizations that will monitor federal investments, help communities prepare grant applications and create a “rapid strike” force of lawyers targeting states that are strangling funding. in cities, said Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.
“Part of our job as well is to make sure that we’re monitoring everything and that the state legislature is absolutely aware that we’re monitoring,” Wright said.. She is leading the effort with WE ACT for Environmental Justice Executive Director Peggy Shepard and Robert Bullard, director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University.
Wright said very few local officials are even aware of Biden’s commitment to spur investment in areas with high levels of pollution and economic distress. That also reveals a downside for the Biden administration, he said: Simply repeating the president’s promise doesn’t necessarily translate into better results.
Most federal dollars first go through state legislatures and governors who may not align with the president’s goals, Wright noted. That means local communities must lobby state governments while navigating complex federal programs for grants that don’t have to go through state capitols.
“The money always seems to go to the white suburbs,” he added. “Sending money to Mississippi to even fix Jackson is not going to happen unless there is some federal oversight.”
Changing that dynamic, Wesley said, “requires citizens to be ever vigilant,” which for Jackson represents a tall task given the apparent racial and partisan divide in how the state disburses money.
Even Mississippi’s plan to spend federal stimulus dollars, approved in April, calls for additional oversight of how Jackson upgrades its water and sewer systems — and includes a requirement unique to Jackson that it spend those funds by in 2027.
“Things hit us in double time,” Wesley said, referring to the dual risks of responding to a major flood and drinking water crisis. “And I think, at least on the surface, it looks like the support that could be coming from the state isn’t coming as quickly as it should.”
The city’s water woes are well known to federal officials. Wesley noted that EPA Administrator Michael Regan made these issues central to his visit to Jackson in November. David Maurstad, acting deputy administrator for federal insurance and mitigation at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told POLITICO that it will take a concerted effort from the federal government to help Jackson recover from “the devastation of flooding that exacerbated a problem which existed for… a few years.”
But even Democrats say federal officials haven’t gotten enough information to solve Jackson’s water problem. Thompson said that although Jackson had appealed for federal funding even before the crisis, the city had not provided key details to federal agencies about its plan to put the facility on a permanent footing.
“I know there is a water problem with the city of Jackson. But nobody has shared with me the facts about the problem, as one of the representatives, and what is the remedy or the plan to fix it,” he said in a televised interview on August 21. “Once that happens, I think people will willingly roll up their sleeves and do it.”
Republican leaders have floated plans to create regional rather than municipal water systems as a way to collect statewide revenue. Supporters claim that would bring money to repair Jackson’s system, since its current tax base can’t raise funding.
But Akuno said that would cost Jackson autonomy over the utilities, instead leaving management and oversight to state-appointed boards under some proposals being discussed.
“The subtext to it is, ‘Black people don’t know how to handle it,'” Akuno said.