Commentary: Jackson water crisis: What can you do?

By Roslind McCoy Sibley, MD,

Guest Writer,

Remember your shock that something was wrong with your running water. Do not forget it. Surely, you have heard over the last 5 years, “We are normalizing unacceptable behavior.” The water/sewer problem in Jackson is a prime example. The “disclaimer” which has come with the astronomical bills, that city water contains lead and other contaminants, is an incredible admission. As if putting it in print somehow makes it okay, is that all it takes to get governmental or some private agency off the hook for accountability? What are we supposed to do with that information?

Clean running water is a given in America. People in urban areas have taken it for granted for generations. In Jackson, Mississippi water is considered by many to be irreparably poisoned. It is not uncommon to hear, “I don’t drink the water in Jackson,” or “I haven’t drunk Jackson water for 15 years.” This must be a colossal inconvenience.

The problems are not new. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State of Mississippi filed a lawsuit against the City of Jackson Nov. 20, 2012, for continued violation of Section 301 of the Clean Water Act.

In 2014, water ran down streets from burst pipes. Water pressure was too low in some hydrants to put out fires. Sink holes developed causing streets to be closed. There is a growing problem with the sewer system. Around Mother’s Day 2022, city employees glibly answered calls reporting raw sewage back-ups on Farish Street with the unsettling response, “It happens all over Jackson.” Furthermore, “It’s the customer’s responsibility to get it fixed.”

This dubious decision reportedly was passed by the City Council at the directive of the State Attorney General some years ago. If it is all over Jackson, the municipality should fix it. The city did take care of the one issue, but why would they see dumping on any citizen as the way to improve their bottom line? Such things have been part of municipal services for 100 years. Do they care that most people are not equipped to handle nor can they afford such repairs? A few months later, the tap water turns brown. Any relation? 

Not to be among those who promote false rumors and conspiracy theories, but inquiring minds want to know. What is in that water? What happens if you or your loved ones drink it? Why so many boiled water alerts? Why should one trust that one day, boiling is a must, but the next day, the water is okay? What if bottled water runs out, or if gas prices get too high for you to get transportation? What about the sick and shut in? Upon hearing the reports on national TV, someone said the ‘quiet part out loud.’ “Why don’t they just move the capital somewhere else?” Is that the point? One old adage rings true, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they are not out to get you.”

In August, flood waters from the Pearl River brought the water systems to the breaking point. The news was international. Many people listening to the media coverage, even some from Jackson, assumed that all of Jackson’s water comes from the same source and was uniformly contaminated, if flowing at all. While those assumptions are not accurate, if August was your first, direct encounter with Jackson’s neglected, dilapidated, water infrastructure, hopefully it will not be that bad again.

Your first thought may have been to turn to your smart phone or other computer device, TV, radio, newspaper or neighbor. Was your hope to learn from political leaders and trust what they say? 

Governor Reeves reportedly said, “additional issues at the plant are predictable in the future, and the MS Department of Health will have to complete two consecutive days of clear water sampling before the boil water alert can be lifted.” When our “go-to” people do not or cannot give satisfactory explanations and solutions, what can you do?

Many local citizens, organizations, corporate sponsors, grocery stores and a wide range of donors have come to the aid of Jackson citizens. The public has shown they care for Jacksonians. Officials need to be accurate, honest, united and held accountable. Funding agencies as well as ordinary people deserve the truth about long-term and short-term plans.

President Biden’s Infrastructure Act would seem to lay the groundwork for the sorely needed rescue solutions. The President has sent Federal Aid to Mississippi. This infusion of cash and experts provides for major infrastructure improvements. Multimillions of dollars slated for Jackson, should not be deflected this time.

Having been put on high alert, how can Jacksonians monitor the situation and impact the outcome? Efforts by lawmakers to make wise and just decisions should include sufficient funding to revamp even blighted areas. Some of the most underserved and neglected areas in the inner city such as Farish, Lynch and W. Capital Streets are potentially the most profitable. Consider what revitalizing those areas would do for removing the stigma of the image of Jackson.

One of the main barriers to progress is crime. The fear that it brings, coupled with the suspicion that law enforcement is not doing all they can to stop it, has crippled the city for decades. Funding additional community policing and familiarity with residents of the neighborhoods would improve responses to calls for help. Jackson’s crime rates would go down. School grades could go up; so would property values. An expectation that intangible benefits will result from the Federal aid to Jackson is not unreasonable. The sooner, the better. 

There is a belief, often unspoken, that the capital city will not turn around unless and until a majority of white people are elected to city government. These opinions are held by whites, blacks and probably others. Indicators that the real power structure has started to reclaim the city, are apparent. Time will tell how much the 80% of black Jacksonians appreciate and are willing to hold on to what power they have.

Jackson is a success, “warts and all.” It is the hub, from which the surrounding population centers have derived strength. Gentrification has its’ place, but please, this time, not at the expense of black businesses, property owners and the many others who look to them for support and economic empowerment.

Generations of black Jacksonians have waited for decades, while promises from true integration to trickle-down economics have been broken time and time again. “We,” as in, “We are all in this together” can mean all those who live and make their livelihood in Jackson if some people will let it.

Estimates of five years have been given for “the plant” (O.B. Curtis or Fewell or both?) to be renovated. Information obtained from the Health Department revealed there are 120 designated testing sites, sampled once a month for water quality. The number is determined by the Environmental Protection Agency according to the population of Jackson, approximately 157,000 as of 2020. Testing is done by the MS Dept of Health. If the presence of bacteria is detected in any of the samples, a boiled water alert is issued. There must be two consecutive days of all samples are clear, negative for bacteria or other toxic by-products of disinfection, before the boiled water alert is lifted.

The presence of lead was reported in Jackson’s water in 2015. At least two thirds of the samples tested since then contain lead. The Health Department provides a kit to test for lead and copper for $20. A MS Dept. of Environmental Health official stated that a list of contaminants is issued by the City of Jackson’s Public Works Department once a year. A report from an online source from an agency that attempts to fill the gap in outdated governmental standards, emphasized that just because you see that a contaminant is within “legal limits,” does not mean it is safe.

Through 2020, they reported 25 contaminants found in Jackson’s water supply. The nine which exceeded health guidelines were associated with an increased risk of cancer. They are: Arsenic, Bromodicloromethane, Chloroform, Chromium (hexavalent), Dichloro- acetic acid, Haloacetic acids (HAA5), Haloacetic acids (HAA9), Total trihalome- thanes (TTHMs), Trichloroacetic acid.

Other contaminants include Barium, Chlorate, Chromium (total), Cyanide, Dibromochloromethane, Fluoride, Germanium, Manganese, Monobromoacetic acid, Monochloracetic acid, Nitrate, Nitrate & Nitrite, Nitrite, Radium (-226 &-228), Strontium and Vanadium. 

Jackson, Mississippi has the second largest percentage (79.4%), behind Detroit, of blacks in the country. Memphis is second in actual population.

White flight from Jackson began in the mid to late 1960’s following the landmark Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965, and in the opinion of this writer, was precipitated by the James Meredith March in 1966. Consequently, there has been the loss of the economic base, employment, ability to attract outside investment, ability to retain homegrown talent, property values, wealth building potential, money invested in Jackson Public Schools, scholastic achievement, and yes, infrastructure. The concomitant increase in urban decay, poverty, crime, incarceration, homelessness, health disparities, breakdown of the family and despair was also predictable.

The citizens of Jackson deserve good quality drinking water. It is vital for the health of all. For the foreseeable future, it may be that Jacksonians will require measures at the end user level which go beyond what the locality can provide. For those who can afford it, one option is a home ‘reverse osmosis’ water filtration system. Less expensive options are available. Although not as effective, they are bound to be an improvement over the 2022 City Water Report. If one were to make a case for tax credits and emergency subsidies to be justified, a large segment of the population could be protected. This is a cause worthy of consideration.

Rosalind McCoy Sibley, MD is a native of Jackson, MS. She received her medical degree from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine. She is a board certified radiologist in Hampton, VA.

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