The O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant is seen on August 31, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi.

The O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant is seen on August 31, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. (Photo: Brad Vest/Getty Images)

Privatization Threat Remains, Advocates Warn, After Mississippi Lifts Jackson Boil-Water Notice

"The city remains under threat of a state-imposed privatization," said one campaigner.

One day after officials from the Mississippi State Department of Health lifted the weekslong boil-water notice for Jackson, environmental justice advocates warned Friday that Republican Gov. Tate Reeves' threat of privatization remains and called for adequate public investment in the city's infrastructure to enable the provision of safe drinking water in perpetuity.

"The system remains one climate change-fueled storm away from breaking down again."

"We have restored clean water to the city of Jackson," Reeves said Thursday at a press conference announcing the move.

Mary Grant, director of the Public Water for All campaign at Food & Water Watch, however, said Friday in a statement that there is still a long way to go before anyone can proclaim that all 150,000 residents of the state capital--a majority-Black city where roughly a quarter of people live below the poverty line--are in the clear.

"Contrary to the assurances from Gov. Reeves, much more is necessary to address the harms of decades of racist policies and intentional disinvestment and ensure safe, clean water for Jackson residents," said Grant.

"Federal, state, and local collaboration is helping to improve water service in Jackson, but declarations that the water is 'clean' or 'safe' are hasty and irresponsible," she continued. "The city has an ongoing lead-in-water crisis, and the system remains one climate change-fueled storm away from breaking down again."

"Worse, this progress could be undone if the state forces Jackson to hand control of the system over to corporate interests," said Grant.

Just over a week ago, Reeves--who has refused to prioritize upgrading Jackson's failing infrastructure throughout his two years in office--made clear that he is willing to give a profit-maximizing corporation jurisdiction over a life-sustaining public good, saying that "privatization is on the table."

After Reeves declared a state of emergency just over two weeks ago, Mississippi Free Press journalist Nick Judin stressed that when the beleaguered O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant "is back online and this new acute phase is past, the Jackson water crisis will not be over."

In response to a question posed by the nonprofit news outletat Thursday's press conference, Reeves suggested that his emergency declaration marked the beginning of the GOP-dominated state Legislature taking the reins of Jackson's water system away from the Democratic-led city, though he acknowledged federal authorities could step in instead.

"The intermediate and long-term decisions with respect to the governance of the water system in Jackson are much more complicated discussions," said Reeves. "There are a lot of individuals that will have opinions with respect to that, and anything that ultimately ends in a change in governance structure is actually going to have to be decided upon and voted upon by the Mississippi Legislature."

The governor noted that "it could also be outside the control, even in the Mississippi Legislature--the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] is an entity that has a say in this as well."

"[T]o the residents of Jackson, I would simply say, I don't think it's very likely that the city is going to operate the water system in the city of Jackson anytime soon, if ever again," he added.

In response, Grant warned that "the city remains under threat of a state-imposed privatization."

"Privatization would exacerbate the city's water affordability crisis, driving up the cost of necessary improvements to cover corporate taxes and profits," she said.

As Food & Water Watch has documented, "on average, private companies charge 59% more than local governments charge for water service," Grant added.

To Grant's earlier point about the climate crisis, the recent failures at O.B. Curtis that led to a complete loss of water pressure were precipitated by a late-August bout of record-breaking rainfall--something scientists have long warned will increase in frequency and intensity as a result of planet-wrecking emissions.

Pressure was restored earlier this month, but Thursday marked the first time that city residents have not been instructed to boil their water since July 29. The state health department had issued a rolling precautionary boil-water notice for Jackson a month before the flood-induced emergency while O.B. Curtis was being winterized.

Winterization of the plant was necessary because in early 2021, most Jackson residents were forced to endure an entire month without clean running water--during the Covid-19 pandemic--after a historic freeze damaged systems that Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said were never intended to withstand "days of ice storms and sub-zero temperatures."

Extreme weather has exacerbated Jackson's water issues, but the crisis is first and foremost a consequence of more than 50 years of disinvestment--a process that took hold just after civil rights activists triumphed over the Jim Crow regime and continued as neoliberalism became dominant.

As journalist Judd Legum detailed last week:

The integration of public schools in the 1960s prompted an exodus of affluent whites from Jackson, eroding the city's economic resources. Jackson's declining economic fortunes also prompted the departure of middle-class Blacks, causing an overall population decline. The city went from over 200,000 people in 1980 to less than 150,000 people today... Per capita income is just $21,906.

But while the city's population and tax base shrunk, it still has 114 square miles of aging water infrastructure to maintain. The state, dominated by Republicans, has been largely unwilling to help a city populated by Black Democrats. In 2021, for example, intense storms left Jackson residents without drinking water for a month. The city asked the state for $47 million in funding for emergency repairs. Mississippi allocated $3 million.

Reeves has admitted that "there are indeed problems in Jackson that are decades old, on the order of $1 billion to fix." But the governor has yet to acknowledge how the GOP's refusal to provide financial support at the scale required has helped perpetuate the dangerous status quo.

Instead, he has repeatedly blamed the city, criticizing "its longtime water billing issues, staffing issues at the water plant, and a failure to provide the state or the federal government with a plan to fix the water system," as Mississippi Free Pressreported last week.

But as Legum pointed out, Jackson's difficulties collecting water fees and raising enough revenue to pay for routine maintenance can be attributed to its failed partnership with Siemens, a multibillion-dollar corporation that left the city "with a $7 million annual bond payment [through 2041], a $2 million monthly shortfall in water fees, and a system of water meters that was not working."

"On average, private companies charge 59% more than local governments charge for water service."

Grant, for her part, said that rather than "abdicating responsibility for ensuring safe water to every Jackson resident, the governor must reject water privatization and commit to correcting the state's racist policies--which, among other wrongs, have excluded Jackson from federal and state support for disadvantaged communities--and realize the promise that every Jackson resident has clean and safe water."

As The Associated Pressreported Friday, "Other cities across the United States could face similar challenges with aging water systems that are ill-equipped to handle more intense and frequent flooding caused by climate change."

"And when it comes to water scarcity and contamination," the outlet added, "working-class communities of color are most vulnerable."

On Thursday, U.S. Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) introduced the Resolution Recognizing Human Rights to Utilities.

"Water, sanitation, heating and cooling, and broadband are basic human rights," said Bowman, "that should be accessible, public[ly] owned and operated, and climate-conscious."

Food & Water Watch was one of more than 200 organizations to endorse the resolution.

"It is long past time," Grant said, "for Congress to recognize these essential human rights and to commit to protect people from privatization and violent collection practices. Access to utilities is essential to life and living a life with dignity."

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