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Residents of Jackson, Miss., remain fearful of drinking water after boil notice's end

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Jackson, Miss., is trying to recover from a water crisis that left residents without clean drinking water for nearly two months and no water pressure at all for a week. Officials have since lifted a boil water notice, but many people in the capital city remain afraid to drink from their own faucets. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You pull a little bit closer?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Residents in south Jackson keep coming to this water distribution site at the New Jerusalem Church.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How are you doing, bud?

ELLIOTT: The cars pull in, and workers load two cases of free bottled water into trunks and back seats.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Where you want it, in the seat right here?

JUDGE BLOCKER: Yeah. That'll be fine. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. All right. God bless. Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Judge Blocker says even though his faucets are running again, he's not ready to drink, cook or clean with what comes through them just yet.

BLOCKER: I do have pretty good pressure coming in, but that's only to flush with. I'm not just really trusting it now to do anything else with it, just to flush with.

ELLIOTT: The city of Jackson didn't have any running water, even for flushing toilets, earlier this month. Its water treatment system failed when flooding exacerbated longstanding problems. By then, nearly 180,000 water customers had already been under a boil advisory for weeks. The state intervened to make emergency repairs and lifted that order about two weeks ago. Since, there have been new problems - a chlorine leak at a treatment plant and water line breaks. Concerns also remain about potential lead contamination. The health department still urges pregnant women and young children to use bottled or filtered water.

DANYELLE HOLMES: This is not only just a water crisis, but this has now transitioned into a public health crisis.

ELLIOTT: That's Danyelle Holmes, a Jackson-based organizer with the Poor People's Campaign, one of the grassroots groups that make up the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, which continues to provide free bottled water to residents daily. She says chronic neglect of the capital city's infrastructure led to this crisis.

HOLMES: Over the years, once you starve something, it eventually dies. And so this is what we're seeing with the water treatment facility. It has been starved - like, I mean, our infrastructure all together is crumbling.

ELLIOTT: Holmes and other activists are calling on the federal government to intervene. EPA Administrator Michael Regan met with Jackson's mayor this week, acknowledging that people here have been without access to safe and reliable water for decades, a situation he calls a longstanding injustice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL REGAN: These conditions - I believe we all can agree - are unacceptable in these United States of America.

ELLIOTT: In a letter, the U.S. Justice Department said state and local authorities have violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. It cites 300 boil water notices in the last two years and says there's substantial endangerment to human health. The federal agencies and Jackson are in talks to avoid litigation and come up with a court-approved plan to ensure sustainable water service. Republican Governor Tate Reeves says outside help is needed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TATE REEVES: I don't think it's very likely that the city is going to operate the water system in the city of Jackson anytime soon, if ever.

ELLIOTT: There are also civil lawsuits brought by water customers and a claim from the NAACP against the state of Mississippi alleging racial discrimination. Everyone agrees that a long-term fix is needed, but there's no consensus on what that should look like. Ideas include a regional entity or even privatization. And politics are at play. Local activists like Danyelle Holmes say they don't trust the Republican-led state government to serve the best interests of Democratic led and majority black Jackson.

HOLMES: No, we don't trust it. And I definitely don't trust it from a state leader, our governor, who has shown and spewed out of his mouth his disdain for Jacksonians, right?

ELLIOTT: She's referring to this comment Reeves made while traveling during the water crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REEVES: I've got to tell you, it is a great day to be in Hattiesburg. It's also, as always, a great day to not be in Jackson.

ELLIOTT: Many perceived the comment as tone deaf at best when people in Jackson were trying to manage the basic functions of life with water from a bottle. Back at New Jerusalem Church, Arlillian West is fed up with it.

ARLILLIAN WEST: It's been horrible to have to actually have water kept in your bathroom to brush your teeth with, to have to actually warm water up to even bathe with each and every day, even to wash your face. That's been a lot of work.

ELLIOTT: West says the most frustrating part is that after all the hardship, she's still expected to pay for a failed water system.

WEST: I just got my bill yesterday and it's $146. That's too much for one month of not being able to do anything but flush.

ELLIOTT: If she's paying for the system, West says, she'd like to have higher confidence that the water coming from her faucet is safe. 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.