EPA watchdog to probe Jackson water crisis

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Inspector General on Tuesday announced a probe into the recent water emergency in Jackson, Miss., that left tens of thousands of residents in the state capital without access to safe drinking water.

“Given the magnitude of the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, it is critical that the EPA OIG act with a sense of urgency to understand what has happened in that community. I have directed a multi-disciplinary team of oversight professionals to look into Jackson’s drinking water system,” Inspector General Sean O’Donnell said in a statement. 

“We have begun the process of conducting interviews and collecting data related to the oversight of the water system and administration of the state’s water revolving funds,” O’Donnell added. “That information will provide a basis for decisions about additional work to follow.” 

In late August, torrential rain inundated the Pearl River and knocked the city’s primary water treatment facility out of service. Residents were without water for days, though water pressure was restored that weekend. A boil-water advisory has been in effect in the area since July after health officials found above-average “turbidity,” or cloudiness, levels in the water.

The crisis last month was the second in as many years for the city, after extreme winter weather froze pipes in 2021 and left numerous residents without running water. In 2020, the city failed an EPA inspection of its drinking water, with the agency citing potential bacterial contamination. 

Jackson has been majority-Black for decades after an exodus of white residents following desegregation, and the dwindling tax base has led much of its water infrastructure to fall into disrepair.  

Activists have blamed the crisis in large part on environmental racism, defined by sociologist Robert Bullard as “any policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (where intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race.”  

The city’s predominantly Black and Democratic leadership has frequently sparred with the predominantly white and Republican leadership at the state level over where responsibility lies for fixing the water system, which Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D) has said will require billions of dollars. 

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