JACKSON, Miss — EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Tuesday the agency is still working on a plan to make long-term improvements to the water system in Mississippi’s capital city, which was dangerously close to collapse more than two months ago.
“I’m here for the fourth time in a year because I want to hear from you directly,” Regan told dozens of businessmen, elected officials, pastors and others at a gathering at Jackson State University.
Radhika TBEN, the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Water, accompanied Regan and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba for the meeting.
Jackson has struggled with water problems for decades. Most of the city was without running water for days after heavy rains in late August exacerbated problems at the city’s main water treatment plant. When that happened, Jackson had been under a boil advisory for a month because health inspectors had found cloudy water that could make people sick.
About 80% of Jackson’s 150,000 residents are black, and about a quarter of the population lives in poverty.
The advice for boiling water was lifted in mid-September, but many people remain skeptical about water quality. State Representative Bo Brown, a Democrat from Jackson, asked Regan Tuesday if there is anything the EPA can do to give people confidence that the water is safe to drink.
“You still hear people say, ‘Well, I’m not so sure,'” Brown said.
Regan said he spent time with a 98-year-old woman at her home in Jackson and she gave him advice: put politics aside and start working on a solution.
“The mayor and I have already discussed this a number of times. We know we have to earn the trust,” Regan said.
The EPA announced on Oct. 20 that it had begun investigating whether Mississippi state agencies discriminated against Jackson by refusing to fund improvements for the failing water system. Regan told reporters he could not provide details about that investigation on Tuesday.
On October 31, the EPA announced that testing had shown that Jackson water is safe to drink. The bureau encouraged residents to pay attention to future cooking water recommendations. It was not yet certain whether Jackson has too much lead and copper in his water; sampling is complete and results are expected sometime this month.
Regan’s first trip to Jackson as EPA leader was on a “Journey to Justice” tour late last year to raise awareness of environmental issues in low-income communities, mostly minorities, in Gulf Coast states. Three of Regan’s trips to Jackson have occurred since the water emergency began in late August.
The Jackson system continues to face extensive and costly repairs. The state health department and Mississippi Emergency Management Agency began overseeing operations and repairs at the facility.
Lumumba told reporters after Tuesday’s rally that he wants Republican Gov. Tate Reeves to extend a state of emergency for Jackson’s water system, which expires next Monday.
Lumumba said at the meeting that water problems are disrupting the economy, disrupting schools and universities and affecting quality of life.
“We are ready to end these cycles of humiliation,” Lumumba said.
Rev. Dwayne K. Pickett Sr., pastor of New Jerusalem Church in Jackson, told EPA officials that now that the Jackson water system has been repaired, he wants to see meaningful participation from minority contractors.
TBEN said she began her water career in San Francisco, and that city made efforts to include minority contractors by, for example, breaking up large contracts into smaller ones. She said the EPA is looking into equity issues in Jackson and other places. She said replacing aging infrastructure should be done in a way that “builds power and builds wealth” for affected communities.