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Running water is restored to Jackson but when will the boil order be lifted?


Running water has been restored to residents of Jackson, Miss., but the city's water infrastructure is still deficient. The state's capital was without basic water service for a week after a storm knocked out service at one of the city's two water treatment plants. Before the storm, though, there was already an issue. Families were advised to boil water before drinking it or using it to cook. Residents and activists say the problems go back years. For more on this issue, we're joined now by the mayor of Jackson, Miss., Chokwe Antar Lumumba.

Mayor, what's the current state of water service in the city?

CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Well, presently, as you stated, the pressure has been restored, but the boil-water notice has not been lifted. At the current moment, there is an investigatory sampling process underway to ensure when the actual official sampling can begin. There are approximately 120 sites across the city that the health department has sanctioned as testing sites. It requires two consecutive days of clear samples before the boil-water notice can be lifted. But what I caution people in terms of is - you know, we've been here before - in terms of Jackson's infrastructure - where we've been able to restore pressure. We've been able to lift boil-water notices, but without critical and, you know, very important capital improvements to be made of our water treatment facility, it's not a matter of if it will fail again, but a matter of when it will fail again.

MARTÍNEZ: And we're going to get to that in just a second. I want to do a play for you something, though. My NPR colleagues Jennifer Ludden and Walter Ray Watson traveled to Jackson recently, and they spoke to a woman named Halima Olufemi, who grew up in Jackson. And she said as far back as she can remember, there's been water issues. Let's play a part of what she told us.

HALIMA OLUFEMI: My big momma and my JoJo - these are my great-grandmothers and grandmothers - would always have to boil water, so much so that we would buy extra jugs, and they would always pour the water in. At a certain point, the little plastic would start coming out of one jug, so we had to go ahead and fill it. And it was a way of life.

MARTÍNEZ: Mayor, a way of life - how far back do these issues go in Jackson?

LUMUMBA: Well, I can just recall from my introduction to the city. I moved to Jackson in 1988 as a little boy. I remember in '89 how a storm - a winter storm - debilitated our system then. And I can remember being without water for more than a month. And I can remember that there are more times than I can honestly recount over the course of my years in Jackson. And so it's something that has not been invested in. It's something that has been neglected by administration after administration. And that is why we have been lifting it up the entire time that I've been in office.

You know, we've been going it the better part of, you know, three years, two to three years. And so when the state came to me and said that they were going to, you know, join us, I welcomed them with open arms. And so people, you know, certainly have their sentiments about the lack of support over the years. But I share with them, my priority at this moment while I have them at the table, is ensuring that residents have the return of service and the quality of water that they can drink. I think we can discuss or litigate our positions after that. But right now when people don't have water, they're wanting to know that everyone is working hand in hand to make sure that it is restored and that it is of a quality that they can use.

MARTÍNEZ: And I know the governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, has said that privatization is on the table. You've said that you'd consider a maintenance agreement with a private company but are opposed to totally privatizing the city's water system. Why?

LUMUMBA: Well, I think that the literature is extensive. The history is extensive in terms of what happens when a private company pillages public resources or public utilities. Often it affects the rates. And affordability is already a challenge in the city of Jackson. And so private companies are not coming to be benevolent. They're coming to make a profit. And so when there are extensive and critical repairs that need to be made, then they're making that investment on the front end, looking to have a serious return on the back end. And the way that they do that is to raise the rates on the residents. And so that is of primary concern to me. Furthermore, as - you know, the state has mentioned that privatization is on the table, the same company that the city was negotiating with in terms of an operations and maintenance agreement is the same company that the state has negotiated with. And so if it's good enough for the state, then there should be no reason why it's not good enough for the city to reach an agreement which has a set contractual price that the city pays while being able to maintain and secure reasonable rates our residents.

MARTÍNEZ: But as we heard from the resident of Jackson, Halima Olufemi, she says it's been a way of life for her. So if it's been one way for so long, why not be more open to a radical change?

LUMUMBA: Well, the radical change is actually having support of our system, right? The radical change is actually having the resources to make the repairs that haven't been made over generations. I know Ms. Olufemi very well. And I know where she sits and her concerns. And so she's of the mind that I am, that privatization is taking people from one state of misery to the next. We have to depart from this notion that privatization is the only way that the system can be supported. That is not true, right? And it's furthest from the truth. What is true is that if there is a proper investment made in the system from the state or federal resources, then it can survive. Or if we band together to build a new system, then there is a path forward. But what we don't want to do is cause additional harm on the residents, harm where this has become a way of life and the basic necessity that they need is one that they can't afford. And so it moves them, as I said, from one state of misery to the next. And so instead of moving people away, we want to lift people up.

MARTÍNEZ: President Biden's infrastructure bill aims to put some money towards cities, just like Jackson, that have critical infrastructure needs. Will you look to the federal government for help there?

LUMUMBA: I had an extensive discussion with the president. We talked for about 20 minutes. And then I spoke with the vice president. They assured me that this is one of their highest priorities and that they do want to support the city of Jackson. When he initially signed the infrastructure bill, he made mention of Jackson. I have long said that Jackson is the poster child for infrastructure, noting our water infrastructure challenges. And so that is certainly our hope. But that requires state cooperation to some extent. And so I just want to make certain that the - you know, put partisan differences aside and are able to aim and work towards the goal of a safe, equitable, dependable water treatment system.

MARTÍNEZ: Did President Biden - and quickly on this, Mayor - did he give you a timeline? He said it was a priority, but did he give you a timeline?

LUMUMBA: No timeline, but he told me the agencies that he would have working on it - FEMA in the short term and the EPA for the long-term goals.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Chokwe Antar Lumumba, mayor of Jackson, Miss.

Mayor, thanks.

LUMUMBA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "REACTOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.