Q&A: EPA says Jackson’s water is safe. Now what?

Health

Although the water now flows “just fine” from Charles McCaskill’s south Jackson, Miss., home, on Sept . 7, 2022, he says he still won’t drink it, noting the current state-issued, boiled-water notice. A boil-water advisory has been lifted for Mississippi’s capital, and the state will stop handing out free bottled water on Saturday. But the crisis isn’t over. Water pressure still hasn’t been fully restored in Jackson, and some residents say their tap water still comes out looking dirty and smelling like sewage. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

(NewsNation) — There are signs of relief for the people in Jackson, Mississippi, this week after a monthslong water crisis.

The Environmental Protection Agency now says that the city’s drinking water is safe after numerous tests. Associated Press reporter Michael Goldberg spoke with NewsNation on Wednesday to provide the latest details.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

NewsNation: The EPA says the water is safe to drink. What else are they saying to convince people that’s true?

Goldberg: The EPA told me on Monday that, based on samples they collected with the Mississippi State Department of Health, the water is safe to drink and meets standards under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Though they did specify that (test samples) for lead and copper levels in the water have been collected, but those results have not been received yet. They are expected in mid-November.

So they are cautioning at-risk populations, such as pregnant women (and) children to follow State Department health guidelines and proceed with caution until the full slate of results are available.

As far as rebuilding trust in the water system, it’s certainly a long-term process. I’ve spoken with residents of Jackson, who have lived in the city their entire life and have never drank from the tap water due to ongoing issues and just distrust. So rebuilding trust from citizens of Jackson will certainly be an ongoing process based on what local officials are telling me.


NN: How far back does the distrust go?

Goldberg: It really lingers back decades. To be honest, some sort of trace the decline of Jackson’s water system to the 1970s, when federal spending on water infrastructure peaked. Over the course of the last few decades, there have been periodic boil-water notices due to breakdowns in the water system. And even before the water crisis began in late August, the city had already been under a boil-water notice for one month due to cloudy water samples that were collected at the beginning of the summer. So it really is a long term issue that didn’t arise overnight in late August.

NN: How can this happen in one of our American cities? And the second question is, why did it take so long to address it and then fix it?

Goldberg: Well, the question of how did this happen is one that certainly depends on whom you ask.

To analyze the Jackson water crisis is to look at kind of a complex web of political and legal disputes that spanned city, state and federal government. Some place the blame at the feet of the state and federal government for not investing in Jackson’s water infrastructure to the degree that local officials have asked for. Others have said that, really, the crisis can be traced back to mismanagement at the city-level issues with the billing system and just kind of general day-to-day mismanagement.

And some believe it’s kind of a combination of multiple factors. … But of course, we’ve seen water system breakdowns in Flint, Michigan, and other cities. I think that locals are really hoping that the national attention that this particular crisis has garnered will really catalyze action from multiple levels of government to finally fix this water system, to try to get those answers.

A lot of times, it will take an investigation. The EPA says it will investigate the coordination between state and local government.

NN: To get those answers, a lot of times it will take an investigation. The EPA says it will investigate the coordination between state and local government. What’s the status of that investigation at this point?

Goldberg: The NAACP urged the EPA to investigate based on a federal civil rights complaint that it filed. The NAACP’s argument is that the state government in particular has not done its due diligence and funding. Jackson has funneled money into majority white suburbs of Jackson and prevented Jackson from raising the revenue through its local sales tax and other means to fix the water system.

So the EPA has launched an investigation. Congressman Bennie Thompson, who represents most of Jackson, expects the investigation to take about four months. The water crisis is also the subject of two congressional investigations. One of the committees investigating is led by Congressman Thompson, although the status of that investigation is unclear, given that if Democrats lose their majority in the midterms, the fate of those investigations — whether they would proceed or not — would be unclear. But the EPA investigation is pressing ahead.

NN: So you’ve got the investigation on one hand and then you’ve got the Safe Drinking Drinking Water Act on the other. Could the city still face legal challenges?

Goldberg: It could. At this point, it is unclear. The mayor of Jackson said at a news conference on Monday that, again, based on the current samples that have been collected by the EPA, the city meets the standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA had previously threatened the city of Jackson with legal action if it didn’t agree to engage in negotiations to come up with a plan to fix the water system over the long term to ensure that these structural issues are fixed.

And according to the EPA administrator, Jackson has been engaged in those talks and negotiations are ongoing. But again, (for) some of the sampling, the results have not been collected or have not been finalized yet. And negotiations are ongoing so it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Jackson is completely out of the woods from a legal standpoint.

NN: You mentioned a moment ago concerns by many, particularly pregnant women, about drinking the water right now. The governor has issued that state of emergency that extends for another few weeks through almost the end of November. What message does that send to people as you talk about rebuilding trust?

Goldberg: If you think about a state of emergency, while yes, technically a state of emergency has been in place since Aug. 30 and it will technically end on Nov.r 22, the people of Jackson, Mississippi, have viewed the water system in the context of emergency for a very long time.

It’s not clear to me, based on the conversations that I’ve had with Jackson residents, that they are really paying close attention to whether the emergency order will be extended, whether it will end. They do not trust the water in Jackson and until they are given reason to trust the water system, it’s unclear they will.

But again, of course, that does depend on who you talk to. There are others who believe that the city and the state and federal government are taking the necessary steps to sort of remedy the issues that plagued the water system. … The mayor has said that it will be a $1 billion effort to really fix some of the issues. … So again, this is a long-term process.

And I think while there’s a lot of disagreement about who is to blame, most agree that it will not be fixed overnight and it is a basic necessity.

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