Mollie Pinion

It is indisputable that “[a]ccess to clean, poison-free water is a fundamental human right.”[1] Nevertheless, the water infrastructure in Jackson, Mississippi has been plagued for decades by underinvestment, “neglect, mismanagement, and maintenance failures.”[2] Even though Jackson is the state’s capital and largest city, its residents are all too familiar with the daily struggles accompanying frequent water line breakages, “shut-offs, boil-water notices and . . . ongoing exposure to toxic lead and harmful bacteria.”[3] Late last year, these struggles culminated in the complete shutdown of the city’s primary water treatment plant, leaving over 150,000 Jackson residents without safe “water to drink, wash, or [even] flush toilets” for what state leaders feared would be an indefinite period of time.[4]

In August 2022, harsh rainfall bloated the Pearl River well past flood stage and wreaked havoc on the O.B. Cutis Water Treatment Plant (“O.B. Curtis WTP”), resulting in pump failures spanning 1,500 miles.[5] The O.B. Curtis WTP “processes [nearly] 50 million gallons of water a day and [had been] operating on backup pumps for months” leading up to the storm’s devastating impacts on Jackson’s already strained infrastructure.[6] The pump failures resulted in a severe drop in water pressure, making the water susceptible to contaminants, including alarming amounts of soil toxins and chemicals, and completely unsafe to drink.[7] Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer and water safety advisor, explained that water was unable to reach the end of the pipes.[8] When such a catastrophic failure occurs, Whelton added, “’[t]hat means you have lost complete control of your water system.’”[9] After the state began relief and repair efforts, Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency in the capital city, stating that the drop in water pressure had created a “condition of disaster and extreme peril to the safety of persons and property” in the city of Jackson.[10]

Notably, these untenable conditions did not come without adequate warning. In early 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency ( the “EPA”) launched an investigation into Jackson’s compliance with the Safe Water Drinking Act and put the city on notice that the equipment at the O.B. Curtis WTP was “inoperable” [11] and had “operations and maintenance issues.”[12] One year later, heavy snowfall in February 2021 caused failures at the O.B. Cutis WTP and left residents without safe drinking water for weeks.[13] In response, the EPA issued an emergency federal order, finding the city in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the National Water Regulations, and the Mississippi Primary Drinking Water Regulations.[14] Most recently, Jackson allocated $1.2 million for repairs at the O.B. Cutis WTP in April 2022, but it proved insufficient to address the facility’s “decades of disrepair.”[15] Jackson residents were placed under a boil-water notice beginning in July 2022 as state officials had begun “’preparing for a scenario where Jackson would be without running water for an extended period.’”[16] Despite these warnings and futile preparations, Jackson’s water system remained on the brink of failure, culminating in the complete shutdown in August 2022.

Although Jackson residents have long ago adapted to such “catastrophic government failure[s],”[17] the 2022 water crisis sparked the first federal class action lawsuit naming the city, government officials, and private engineering firms as defendants.[18] Claiming injunctive relief and monetary damages, the resident-plaintiffs allege that, “[d]ue to antiquated and inadequate equipment, lack of repairs and maintenance, understaffing, and other failures . . . Jackson has not provided adequate and safe drinking water to its citizens.”[19] The Complaint describes that, as the result of decades of neglect, the failure of the O.B. Curtis WTP deprived residents of not only drinking water but also “water for making powered baby formula, cooking, showering, or laundry,” and the lack of water pressure left Jackson residents unable to “flush their toilets for days at a time.”[20] Further, the Complaint states that, even before the plant failed, the city’s water supply was and continues to be “not fit for human consumption due to high levels of lead and other [harmful] contaminants in [flagrant] violation of [the] right to bodily integrity protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, and the [EPA]’s Lead and Copper Rule.”[21] Due to the significant EPA warnings about the O.B. Curtis WTP, plaintiffs contend that the shutdown was “wholly foreseeable by Defendants’ actions and has left Jackson residents in an untenable position – without access to clean, safe water in 2022 in a major United States city.”[22] Raine Becker, one of the named Plaintiffs in the class action, emphasized that “[a]ccess to clean water is a basic human right . . . . The purpose of the lawsuit is to force them to fix the water mess, care for our community that has been put in danger, and put the right systems in place so that this never happens again.”[23]

While Jackson residents are hopeful that the lawsuit will “‘give the next generation a chance,’”[24] it has certainly shed light on the presence of “environmental racism,”[25] a term particularly applicable to the daily struggles faced by many in the predominantly Black city. Jackson is comprised of nearly 84% minorities, and one in four live below the poverty line.[26] As the water crisis picked up coverage across the United States, it also garnered international attention, with one Swiss news source describing the conditions in Jackson as “a run-down settlement in a crisis region.”[27] Others found the capital city’s water system a “symbol of national embarrassment,” with a “complex story of population decline, poverty, racism, politics, mismanagement, and theft.”[28] With this background in mind, experts say that places like Jackson are at high risk for such environmental catastrophes due to the fact that “structural racism” is blatant in such infrastructure mismanagement, noting that disparate water systems “’literally lay the groundwork for racial disparities.’”[29] In response to the water crisis, the EPA has launched further investigations, now determining whether Mississippi state agencies have “’discriminated against the majority Black population of Jackson, Mississippi, on the basis of race . . . in its funding of water infrastructure and treatment programs.’”[30] The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the “NAACP”) applauded the investigation, emphasizing that a probe into the state’s “”decades-long pattern and practice of discriminating against the city of Jackson when it comes to providing federal funds to improve local water systems” is long overdue.[31] 

While Jackson residents have consistently centered each day around frantic searches for safe water, many remain hopeful that the lawsuit and the attention garnered by the crisis will only help to improve the conditions in Mississippi’s capital. Evelyn Fletcher, a Jackson resident of 13 years, optimistically “feel[s] that God allowed this situation to be exposed across America, and even other countries, so we could get the assistance that we really need . . . because we’ve been going through it for a while.”[32] Perhaps she is right. At a minimum, the class action lawsuit ensures that Mississippi state and local leaders will soon have to answer to Jackson residents for failing to provide safe, clean water.

[1] Class Action Complaint for Injunctive Relief & Money Damages with Jury Trial Demand at 1, Sterling v. City of Jackson, No. 3:22-cv-00531 (S.D. Miss. Sept. 16, 2022).

[2] Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP, Jackson, Mississippi Residents File First Federal Class Action Lawsuit Over the Contamination and Failure of the Water System, Business Wire (Sept. 19, 2022, 9:00 AM),…on-Lawsuit-Over-the-Contamination-and-Failure-of-the-Water-System.

[3] Emily Le Coz et al., Jackson Water Crisis Flows from Century of Poverty, Neglect and Racism, Mississippi Today (Nov. 7, 2022),

[4] Id.; Thomas Nocera, Drinking Water Crisis Envelopes Junk-Rated Jackson, Mississippi, System, Bond Buyer (Aug. 31, 2022, 3:38 PM),

[5] Brady Dennis & Sarah Kaplan, Jackson, Miss., Shows How Extreme Weather Can Trigger a Clean-Water Crisis, Wash. Post (Aug. 21, 2022, 5:29 PM),

[6] Nocera, supra note 4.

[7] Dennis & Kaplan, supra note 5.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Miss. Exec. Order No. 1564 (Aug. 30, 2022).

[11] EPA, MS0250008, Safe Drinking Water Act Compliance Investigation 18 (2020).

[12] Id. at 19.

[13] Nocera, supra note 4.

[14] EPA, MS0250008, Notice of Noncompliance Pursuant to Section 1414(a)(1)(A) of the Safe Drinking Water Act, 42 U.S.C. § 300g-3(a)(1)(A), City of Jackson Public Water System 1 (2020).

[15] Nocera, supra note 4.

[16] Id.

[17] Emmanuel Felton, Living in a City with No Water: ‘This is Unbearable,Wash. Post (Sept. 3, 2022, 9:11 AM),

[18] Lieff, supra note 2; Class Action Complaint for Injunctive Relief & Money Damages with Jury Trial Demand, Sterling v. City of Jackson, No. 3:22-cv-00531 (S.D. Miss. Sept. 16, 2022).

[19] Id. at 14–15.

[20] Id. at 1.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Lieff, supra note 2.

[24] Felton, supra note 17 (quoting Jackson resident Tammie Williams).

[25] David Singer, Poverty and Racism in Jackson Mississippi’s Water Crisis, Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Dec. 14, 2022), (The term “environmental racism” “refers to the fact that Black people and Native Americans are regularly exposed to greater burdens due to pollution, landfills, or neglected infrastructure than white Americans.”)

[26] Le Coz, supra note 3.

[27] Singer, supra note 25.

[28] Le Coz, supra note 3.

[29] Dennis & Kaplan, supra note 5 (quoting public policy researcher Andre Perry).

[30] Aurora Ellis Daniel Trotta, U.S. EPA Opens Civil Rights Probe into Mississippi Capital’s Water Crisis, Reuters, Oct. 20, 2022,

[31] Id.

[32] Le Coz, supra note 3.

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