Congress is examining Jackson’s water crisis as a city and state

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – Congress is investigating a crisis that left 150,000 people in Mississippi’s capital city without running water for several days in late summer, according to a letter two Democratic officials sent Gov. Tate Reeves.

Reps. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Carolyn Maloney of New York sent a letter Monday seeking information on how Mississippi plans to spend $10 billion from the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, and $429 million “specifically allocated to improve the state’s water infrastructure.”

The letter points to the “beginning of a joint investigation” by the House Homeland Security and Oversight and Reform Committees into the crisis that left 150,000 Jackson residents without running water for several days in late August and early September, Adam Comis, a staffer for the committee, told The Associated Press.

Thompson’s district includes most of Jackson, and he chairs the Homeland Security Committee. Maloney chairs the Oversight and Reform Committee.

Jackson has had water problems for years, the most recent one troubles it began in late August after heavy rainfall exacerbated problems at the city’s main water treatment plant, leaving many customers without running water. Jackson has already been under a boil water order since late July because the state health department found murky water that could make people sick.

Running water was restored within days and the boil water notice was lifted in mid-September, but the letter to Reeves said “the city’s water infrastructure remains unsafe and risks to Jackson residents remain.”

A pair of congressional Democrats asked for an analysis of where the state sent funds from the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, including the “racial demographics and population size of each” community that received aid. They also asked for information on whether Jackson faced “burdensome obstacles” to receiving additional federal funding. The letter asks Reeves to provide the requested information by Oct. 31.

Mississippi has not yet announced how it will spend the money from the America’s Rescue Plan Act for water projects. Cities and counties had until September 30 to apply for funding.

According to the letter, Board of Supervisors staff learned in a briefing with Jackson officials that the state had attempted to limit Jackson’s funding for its water system. The state reportedly planned to “bar communities of more than 4,000 people from competing for additional funds from the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” the letter said.

In their letter, Thompson and Maloney are also referred to AP reports that Reeves was involved in delaying funds for repairs to the water system in Jackson and claimed to have blocked the funds. Reeves’ office did not immediately respond to an AP request for comment on the letter.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice in January that Jackson’s water system was in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. In September, federal prosecutors threatened legal procedure against the city if it does not agree to negotiations regarding its water system. Lumumba said the city is working with the federal government on a plan to repair the water system.

Failure of city and state officials to provide Jackson residents with a reliable water system decades of non-functioning government, population change and deteriorating infrastructure. It also fueled a political battle between GOP state lawmakers and Democratic city officials.

That nastiness continued after the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency announced Friday that it is looking for a private contractor to run the Jackson water system for a year. The agreement would finance the city of Jackson, he said suggestion published by MEMA.

In a news release Monday, Reeves said city officials told his office that Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba plans to “functionally end the city’s cooperation” by “declining to participate in the water operator selection process.”

“While politics is obviously his priority, we’re just trying to make sure Jackson’s water doesn’t fail again,” Reeves said. “Ultimately, it may fall to the city council to rein in this radical gambit.”

Outrage followed even though MEMA wrote that it had requested a private contractor “in unified command with the City of Jackson.”

Reeves has threatened to withdraw state aid if the city doesn’t change course. City officials said they “no longer want the state’s help and insist on doing it ourselves,” Reeves said.

In a statement, Lumumba countered that the city was “doing it alone” after years of seeking state support, and that Jackson “did not mention the City’s lack of cooperation” with state and federal officials. The mayor said the city will not agree to the request for a private contractor until it has had a chance to revise the language in the proposal.

“The city, with the support of those who are really invested in repairing and maintaining the water treatment plant, will have the final say,” Lumumba said. “We look forward to productive conversations that lead to a real deal instead of headlines.”

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