Thompson, Maloney have more questions stemming from Jackson Water Crisis

File - U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., is shown speaking with a reporter after a news...
File - U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., is shown speaking with a reporter after a news conference in this file photograph taken in Jackson, Sept. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)(Rogelio V. Solis | AP)
Published: Nov. 18, 2022 at 6:46 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson’s water crisis has prompted another round of Congressional inquiry, this time with lawmakers questioning how certain federal agencies work to identify and assist water and wastewater utilities vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters.

On Friday, Reps. Bennie Thompson and Carolyn Maloney sent a letter to U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro asking about those federal efforts, specifically focusing on the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

“It’s important that the EPA and DHS make progress on their water sector efforts so that all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards,” the two wrote.

Thompson, a Democrat, chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security. Maloney, also a Democrat, is outgoing chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. CNN reports she lost her reelection bid this year to Democrat Rep. Jerry Nadler.

The letter was sent on November 18, weeks after equipment failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant left tens of thousands of people without running water.

Thompson and Maloney have pinned the failure on the state’s lack of investment in the city’s water system, something refuted by Gov. Tate Reeves, as well as more severe storms brought about by climate change.

The August/September crisis occurred after floodwaters and torrential rains changed the chemical makeup of the Barnett Reservoir, something that impacted the treatment process at the Curtis plant, according to Lester Herrington, assistant commander of the team overseeing emergency operations at the facility.

A year and a half earlier, the plant was shut down by another crisis - two severe winter storms that ripped across the area.

“Multiple winter storms hit Jackson and left the water system out of commission for a month. Residents report they have not gone [for] more than a month for over two years without a ‘boil water’ notice in effect,” the two wrote. “The Jackson Water Crisis was a disaster waiting to happen, and it will not be resolved unless we address the confluence of climate change and generational disinvestment.”

The duo tells the comptroller that continued climate change and lack of investment in Black communities, will make incidents like the Jackson Water Crisis an all more common occurrence - and much worse.

“Climate change is expected to increase the likelihood and extend of damage caused by such natural disasters nationwide,” they wrote. “These issues are certain to worsen, and experts predict that extreme weather will become more common in the region.”

The letter also cites findings by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the cities across the country will need to invest $600 billion in water and wastewater infrastructure over the next 20 years to maintain, upgrade or replace it and that the EPA could do more to help utilities to prepare for climate change and its effects.

Jackson alone needs an estimated $1 billion to address aging water infrastructure and to bring its system into compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. That does not include any expenses that are included in the interim stipulated order approved by the city council earlier this week.

“We are interested in understanding how EPA and DHS are identifying and prioritizing water and wastewater to ensure that they are meeting their goals of providing clean and safe drinking water and resilient communities,” they wrote. The two are asking these questions:

  • To what extent do EPA, FEMA, and CISA work together to identify and prioritize funding for water and wastewater utilities that are vulnerable to service disruptions?
  • How are EPA and FEMA implementing Executive Order 14008 Justice40 provisions and draft guidance as it relates to water and wastewater funding they provide?
  • How are EPA and FEMA incorporating racial equity into relevant programs, pursuant to Executive Order 13985, and how may this affect water and wastewater funding they provide?
  • How do EPA, FEMA, and CISA provide information to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments about federal funds and tools to distribute funds?

The Justice40 Initiative is part of an executive order signed by President Joe Biden, which set a goal of delivering 40 percent of federal funds from certain programs to underserved communities, including funding for water and sewer infrastructure.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, falls under the umbrella of Homeland Security. CISA is the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, which also falls under DHS. The agency provides “free tools, resources, and assistance to critical infrastructure owners and operators to help them secure their physical and digital infrastructure.”

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