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Jackson residents struggling for clean water decry decades of disinvestment

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jackson, Miss., is still trying to recover from a longtime water crisis. Residents there notably lost running taps for a week starting at the end of August. They have also been under boil notices some 300 times over the last two years. As NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, Jackson has a persisting problem that forces its residents to find ways to function without a basic public service - safe and reliable drinking water.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Retiree Fran Bridges helps run a bottled water distribution network in West Jackson.

FRAN BRIDGES: We've been trying to find vulnerable people like people who don't have transportation, people who are too frail and elderly to get out to get water.

ELLIOTT: For more than two months now, she's been trying to connect donated supplies to people in need. That's how long Jackson's most recent boil notice lasted. It's been lifted, but many residents are still afraid to use what's coming from their faucets because of chronic problems with the water treatment system. Bridges says the crisis is taking a toll.

BRIDGES: Any house we go to in Jackson, you have to realize that people have been traumatized. And you just have everybody almost in a daze.

ELLIOTT: Bridges is vice president of the Pecan Tree Park Neighborhood Association and has been helping her city councilman, Vernon Hartley, identify who needs help. A giant map of his district is spread across a table dotted with colorful sticky notes.

VERNON HARTLEY: Now, these little markers mean one thing - drop-off locations. The blue are drop-off locations that we've been hitting up, OK? Water is expected to be coming out of the tap. But when it's not, when clean water cannot come out of the tap, we need to get it to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ALERT DINGING)

ELLIOTT: On a sweltering afternoon, he sets out in his car with water loaded in the trunk.

HARTLEY: The citizens have to have a sense of trust that we're doing the right thing with our water. And I said, we - you know, we're not there.

ELLIOTT: Hartley says his district is a largely underserved community. And people don't have the resources to wait in drive-thru lines at water distribution sites.

HARTLEY: They may have - only have a little bit of gas. And that - trying to save that gas to go to work. So they're just not able. OK, here we go, right here. Sweet lady - I'm going to take her some water.

ELLIOTT: Eighty-two-year-old Christine Webb is sitting on her front porch doing needlework.

HARTLEY: How are you doing, sweetie? I'm Vernon Hartley. I'm your city councilman. We're going to get you some water.

ELLIOTT: Webb says sometimes she forgets and uses the tap water to cook with, but is trying to get accustomed to using bottled water.

CHRISTINE WEBB: It's pretty rough on me, but I'm making it.

ELLIOTT: The prolonged water crisis has changed the way most households operate. Take, for instance, Kimberly Owens.

KIMBERLY OWENS: Our family is a family of five. I have two sons and a daughter. My daughter is the oldest.

ELLIOTT: Her daughter is in college, and her boys are teenagers. Her husband works at a local grocery store. And they also help care for her mother recently released from the hospital after a surgery. Owens says the water problems are a major disruption.

OWENS: You cannot function right without your water.

ELLIOTT: Owens is never quite sure what might happen when she turns on the kitchen faucet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINK RUNNING)

OWENS: Let's see my pressure now. It's - it could be better, but it's great considering some people have no pressure.

ELLIOTT: She has enough flow now for flushing. For a while, she had set up a portable camp toilet for her family. Even though officials lifted a boil order a couple of weeks ago, she's not convinced the water is OK.

OWENS: I'm still like, no, sir. I will not be cooking and drinking with this water 'cause I don't feel it's safe enough.

ELLIOTT: So it's bottled water for drinking, brushing teeth, washing faces and in the kitchen. For doing dishes, she uses bleach. Owens says she can't afford the natural gas bill to use her stove to boil water for five baths a day, so showers are limited to five minutes.

OWENS: I'm still a little iffy about the water. So I'm like, if we can't - if we're not supposed to drink it, how - why should we be washing anything in it - clothes, us, anything? How can we shower if the water is unsafe to drink?

ELLIOTT: Owens says the family has been picking up free water at distribution points daily, but is also spending about $50 a week to buy additional supplies. That's on top of her water bill, and her last one was a whopping $469.

OWENS: So we have been paying for water that's unsafe. And that is so unfair.

HARTLEY: To imagine that this is happening in a capital city in America is just unimaginable.

ELLIOTT: Again, city Councilman Vernon Hartley.

HARTLEY: One of our first priorities of governing, back to the days of Romans, was to make sure we got water to the people - and acceptable water. And somehow, we need to figure this thing out.

ELLIOTT: He says mismanagement of Jackson's water treatment system is the responsibility of local elected officials. But he also blames a lack of state investment in Jackson's infrastructure. He thinks a regional solution will be necessary, but that's an idea Jackson's mayor has rejected. Hartley welcomes federal intervention. EPA and the Department of Justice are in talks with the city to devise a court-approved plan to remedy Safe Drinking Water Act violations. EPA Administrator Michael Regan says the people of Jackson have endured a long-standing injustice.

MICHAEL REGAN: As evidenced by the roughly 300 boil water notices that have been issued over the past couple years, the multiple line breaks during the same time frame, and the recent drinking water crisis, it's clear that this community has suffered enough.

ELLIOTT: For community activist Fran Bridges, fixing the water system won't solve the root of the problem, which she thinks is a mindset that the majority-Black city of Jackson doesn't deserve better.

BRIDGES: People hold onto the old days where Black people were seen as a commodity. And so they can't let go of the myth that white is right, you Black, you get back - something like that, they say. So they think they're the ones who should make the decisions and they should benefit from the poor.

ELLIOTT: She says when state leaders block investment in the capital city, steer spending to majority-white suburbs, and use federal welfare dollars to benefit football celebrities, it deprives resources from the places they're needed most.

BRIDGES: You know, you can look at me all you want to about how I managed my house. But when you are deliberately taking bricks out when I'm trying to build up, then something is wrong.

ELLIOTT: Bridges says the powers that be need to understand that people should have equitable resources because, she says, we are all God's children. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Jackson, Miss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.