For half a decade, the residents of Flint, Michigan went without safe drinking water. City officials began running water from the Flint River into the predominantly Black area without treating it first. The crisis gained national media attention, as activists and celebrities sounded the alarm on the urgent needs of the city’s citizens.
Unfortunately, Flint’s story is not unique. Throughout American history, Black towns have been subjected to environmental racism and racial terror, from redlining to toxic dump sites. The communities we call home are systematically run down and while necessary resources like clean drinking water are blocked, despite federal protection under the 1974 Safe Water Drinking Act.
On Tuesday (August 30), Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency following heavy rains swelling the Pearl River and damaging the city’s main water-treatment facility.
“Until it is fixed, it means we do not have reliable running water at scale,” Reeves said in a statement Tuesday. “It means the city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets, and to meet other critical needs.”
Officials have been scrambling to provide bottled water to thousands of people as it remains unknown exactly when service will be restored.
Yet, activists and community members have urged officials to address Jackson’s aging water system for years.
“It was a near certainty that Jackson would begin to fail to produce running water sometime in the next several weeks or months if something didn’t materially improve,” Reeves said earlier this week.
The city was already facing a state-issued boil water notice in the month prior to the flooding.
A similar water crisis also occurred in 2021 when winter storms covered the state in ice — Pipes and water mains burst throughout Jackson, leaving residents without water for as long as three weeks.
Going back to 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency warned that Jackson’s water system posed “an imminent and substantial endangerment” to its residents and could contain dangerous contaminants.
According to NPR, the challenges in Jackson stem from decades of underinvestment in a water system made up of 1,500 miles of water mains, some of which are more than 100 years old.
St. Joseph, Louisiana
For years, the northeastern Louisiana town of St. Joseph has suffered from the impact of crumbling, aging infrastructure. A 2017 report by The Washington Post found that residents admittedly do not drink the water and for good reason. At the time, city officials found extremely high levels of lead in the water exceeding federal limits. At the time, the city budget didn’t have the $8 million needed to make emergency repairs.
The situation in St. Joseph underlines how current legislation, like the massive infrastructure bill that passed in the Senate last year, is necessary for areas across the countries, particularly areas with historic public health emergencies that have gone unmet because of budget issues.
Florence, South Carolina
Community leaders in Florence, South Carolina took action themselves after going over two decades with smelly, brown-colored water coming out of their faucets.
“No other choice,” resident Carolyn McMillan told NBC News last year. The water, McMillan said, “doesn’t taste right. I tried it a long time ago. Once. That was enough. Sometimes it’s cloudy. It’s stinky, smelly. I have boiled water to cook. It’s a mess.”
Leo Woodberry, a local pastor in Florence, combined his personal savings with raised money to purchase solar hydro panels for $20,000. The panels utilize sunlight to create clean, safe water.
“This is important because Black people have been beaten down under assault on so many fronts,” Woodberry said, noting that disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans and how a lack of access to clean drinking water furthers that tragic impact on our communities.
In 2008, more than a billion gallons of highly toxic coal ash gas burst into the air and water near Kingston, Tennessee. The incident stemmed from a coal-fired power plant and impacted the workers. To clean up the mess, officials allowed the toxic ash to be dumped at a landfill in a small, predominantly Black town in Alabama called Uniontown.
Residents there filed complaints with officials about the landfill since it opened in 2007. The toxic coal ash just made matters worse. The landfill even filed a $30 million lawsuit against residents who complained, though they eventually withdrew the suit. Advocates have urged continuously urged the EPA to do something about the area, to no avail.
Click here to read more about the story of Uniontown, Alabama.
Much like Florence, South Carolina, residents of Campti, Louisiana avoid drinking the tap water. Some residents use bottled water for drinking and cooking while traveling to the next town over to wash clothes.
The water system is estimated to be over 50 years old and residents have reportedly complained about chlorine being in their tap water for years. The city’s budget prevents the repairs from being made and state budget cuts in 2012 led to the employees who test the water supply to be laid off.
In February 2020, the Black Women’s Health Imperative –– part of the Clean Water for All Coalition –– released the “Water, Health, and Equity,” report outlining all the ways Black communities are disproportionately burdened by water inequality. Check out the full report here.