Quiet hallways greeted Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan on his visit to Wilkins Elementary School in Jackson Monday afternoon.
“Water infrastructure … is really about our children,” Regan said to a cafeteria without students. “I’m excited to be here. I’d be more excited if the halls were filled with children. But this is the reason I’m here.”
An ailing water system had brought Regan to Jackson in the first place, and that same system had displaced the students of Wilkins Elementary to Van Winkle Elementary just before his visit. Later in the day, Jackson residents would learn of a third crisis: yet another citywide boil-water alert.
Monday night, the City sent out an alert about Jackson’s water system, unrelated to the chronic problems that had forced students out of Wilkins Elementary that morning. This time, “bad batch of chemicals” at O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant had prompted the citywide precautionary measure.
Today, because of the alert, 10 schools in the Jackson area are all-virtual, Wilkins and Van Winkle included.
‘Creation of Humiliation Cycles’
In the hallway of Wilkins Monday morning, Regan joined Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Errick L. Greene, Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba and the school’s principal, Cheryl Brown, to inspect a bathroom with such low water pressure that the toilets could not flush.
“At the beginning of the day it was low,” Greene explained, “and it got progressively worse. In the middle of the day, trying to regroup and get (parents) ready to receive children or pick them up from another school—these are just some of the challenges.”
Outside, portable toilets and a lawn torn apart for water repairs made the school appear half-constructed.
“We know the issues that exist,” Lumumba said. “They highlight the creation of humiliation cycles. (Children) are uprooted from the environments where they thrive, the resources that we all take for granted like water. That does something to the psyche of our children,” he added.
‘This is a Shot in the Arm’
The EPA’s Monday tour of Jackson, the first leg of a “Journey to Justice” tour of marginalized communities across the South, began with a roundtable event of community leaders. The press was not allowed to attend the conversation, instead meeting the administrator just outside the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. Only hours later, dysfunction at that same plant would leave all of Jackson without drinkable water until Thursday at the earliest.
Much of Regan’s tour of Jackson was dedicated to listening: to students, four of whom returned to Wilkins to question the administrator on his agenda; to residents, who thanked him for visiting and shared their fears over the state of the water in the city. Many spoke in material terms, explaining the personal cost of Jackson’s damaged roads and weekly bottled-water purchases.
But events of national significance surrounded the visit, greater even than Jackson’s latest citywide water failure. Regan’s arrival in Jackson follows President Joe Biden signing an enormous infrastructure bill, the finished product a $1.2 trillion plan for repairs from roadways to internet to water systems.
Mississippi will receive $459 million of the $55 billion specifically devoted to water infrastructure. Still, the City’s estimate for modernizing its water system is closer to $1 billion, significantly more than the entire package includes for the state as a whole.
Moreover, the State Legislature will parcel out the money, an entity that city representatives have frequently asserted are hostile to Jackson’s needs.
Outside Wilkins Elementary, the Mississippi Free Press asked Regan if the EPA had addressed the obvious shortfall in its conversations with Jackson leaders.
“What we’re looking at are the resources in the bipartisan infrastructure deal, the resources we hope to get as part of the Build Back Better deal, and the core resources that we have as a federal agency,” Regan said.
“This is a shot in the arm,” the administrator continued. “It’s a down payment, but it’s a huge opportunity for public-private partnerships. We’re going to have to be creative in how we spend our precious resources, but we’re also going to have to be entrepreneurial in how we partner with the private sector to be sure that our communities are thriving.”
‘These Are Legacy Issues’
City of Jackson City Engineer Charles Williams highlighted public-private partnerships as one of the solutions for the city’s ailing water systems in an earlier interview with the Mississippi Free Press, but cautioned then that the funding was not available for such partnerships to be realistic as of yet.
With incoming funding from the Biden infrastructure bill, however, such arrangements may be back on the table.
During Regan’s brief media comments, he was willing to discuss a more active role for the EPA in water-system maintenance. Decades ago, the agency was directly involved in the funding of water systems, providing massive grants to municipalities across the country that allowed the construction of new, modern water systems.
That all evaporated in the era of President Ronald Reagan—EPA’s relationship to water funding shifted to providing money to states in the form of State Revolving Loan Funds, which municipalities could take out low-interest loans on. Cities like Jackson, with dwindling populations and thus a shrinking tax base, struggle to raise the revenue necessary to take money with strings attached.
The Mississippi Free Press asked Regan if programs intended to more directly serve legacy cities like Jackson were on their way.
“There is absolutely a design strategy to be sure that we tackle water affordability (for legacy cities),” Regan said. “And that we look at getting the resources to the communities that need it the most. The president was very wise in understanding that these are legacy issues—so we understand the structural deficiency that exists in all of our agencies.”
A willingness to challenge the decades-old doctrine of indirect support for water systems is not a full commitment to a new era of EPA funding. But Regan was open to discussing a new turn for the agency, signalling the possibility for a shift in a federal policy that has lasted for nearly half a century.
“That’s why we’re using these funds to bolster existing programs,” Regan continued. “But we’ve also got the freedom and the flexibility to design new programs as well. We’re going to look at what is working from our existing (program) infrastructure so that we can get the money out as quickly as is possible.”
“But all of the money won’t go through the traditional means. Some resources would have to go through new programming to be sure that we tackle those (legacy) issues.”