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The Broadside (Transcript): Millions across the South can’t trust their tap water

Anisa Khalifa: When you turn on the faucet in your house, you really don't want to think twice about the quality of the water coming out. But that's the reality for millions of people across the south, many of them living in majority Black cities like Jackson, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee.

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Unidentified Speaker: Nearly 200,000 residents in Jackson are facing a potential crisis.

Unidentified Speaker: As Jackson works to restore usable water to its residents, many are wondering could something like what's happening there also occur in Memphis, a city that often struggles with its aging infrastructure.

Anisa Khalifa: In our home state of North Carolina, we live with contaminants known as forever chemicals in our water supply, especially along the Cape Fear River in the southeastern part of the state.

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Unidentified Speaker: Chemours is responsible for discharging toxic chemicals known as PFAS into the Cape Fear River.

Unidentified Speaker: A federal judge ruled this week that a class action lawsuit against Chemours and its parent company, DuPont can move forward,

Anisa Khalifa: But the problems vary across the region. I'm Anisa Khalifa. And this week on the Broadside, producer Charlie Shelton-Ormond taps into the water across multiple southern cities, and learns what it'll take to clean it up.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Earlier this year, environmental reporter Adam Mahoney was traveling in the South, digging more into his family's roots.

Adam Mahoney: Particularly Texas and Louisiana to see the places where my father was born and grew up, as well as my grandmother.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: As he was trekking across the states, he noticed a startling similarity.

Adam Mahoney: The throughline that we saw was a water crisis, right. And we know that the infrastructure and the finances are just not there typically to support the day-to-day needs of people.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: So Adam decided to look even deeper. He's the National Climate and Environmental Reporter for Capital B News.

Adam Mahoney: We're the first of our kind newsroom, a nonprofit newsroom with an all-Black staff that reports on Black communities across the country.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: He recently reported on six southern cities and a serious problem facing their water supply, and how Black Americans in these areas are bearing the weight of the crisis.

Adam Mahoney: What we've seen is despite, you know, billions of dollars, the most ever made available to revitalize our nation's drinking water infrastructure, poor and Black communities are probably going to be the last to reap the benefits. And that's because of one, you know, we have decades if not centuries of racist policies that kind of led to divestment in these places. But even outside of the physical infrastructure, these communities don't have the job infrastructure, the political infrastructure, one, to build out infrastructure, and two, to even apply for the funding in the first place.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: The Biden administration has designated roughly $50 billion dollars to fixing problems with water supplies across the country. That includes improving outdated water systems and better regulation. But is this price tag going to be enough to do the job?

Adam Mahoney: Ironically enough, [in] a 2018 federal court, the Environmental Protection Agency found that to maintain and improve our drinking water infrastructure nationwide, that would actually be closer to a $500 billion bill. So well, really the money that's been made available, it's just a drop in the bucket. It is the highest amount of money ever relegated to revitalizing our water infrastructure system. But at the end of the day, even if it is the largest sum of money, it's still not enough. And for folks on the ground, hearing the grand rhetoric around it doesn't matter too much if you're still gonna be drinking brown water.

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Unidentified Speaker: Last month, unprecedented flooding in Mississippi took out a water plant, and left the town of Jackson with no running water for weeks.

Unidentified Speaker: In Jackson, Mississippi, school drop-off isn't just for the kids. It's also for the water. The entire city is facing a boil water notice, again.

Unidentified Speaker: Tonight, we go to Jackson, Mississippi, where residents are still in a fight for clean water. A recent wave of federal funding came with a promise that help would be on the way but it may take years to see real progress. In the meantime, the cities…

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Let's start with Jackson, Mississippi. It's a place that's made headlines in recent years for its water crisis. Can you tell us more about the situation in Jackson?

Adam Mahoney: Yeah, Jackson, I mean, definitely over the last year and a half has really been the flashpoint for our country's water crisis. Particularly because it is, you know, a majority Black city, an 80% Black city, it's brought to the forefront a lot of the racial undertones of our infrastructure system and the way that communities that are typically whiter and wealthier have been granted resources over the last several decades to maintain the vital infrastructure that allows folks to thrive in their communities while places like Jackson hasn't. We have seen under the Biden administration that, you know, there's been different federal initiatives to try to bring Jackson's system up to code.

Last year, at the end of last year, the federal government actually took over the water infrastructure system and appointed a federal head to lead the improvements being made to the water plants and to the distribution lines. Even after that happened, Jackson still experienced another major water boil notice and a major water shutoff. It's a tough and difficult situation. Because when we're thinking about infrastructure, and building out things, those are processes that take months, if not years, and in the meantime, folks are once again left, you know, without water or left with brown water that they cannot consume.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: You also found that there are big differences in water supply problems in urban areas compared to rural areas. For example, Jackson is the capital of Mississippi and is dealing with old infrastructure — it's part of the problem. But that infrastructure might not even exist in rural areas dealing with a water crisis. Can you tell us more about the biggest separations between the water crisis happening in these areas in more urban city communities versus outside of the cityscape?

Adam Mahoney: Yeah, I mean, I think the differences between the crisis in rural communities and urban communities really gets to the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to solving this crisis nationwide, and kind of pokes holes in the Biden administration's attempts to, and like you mentioned, in urban communities, when we're thinking of Jackson, for example, it is a question of outdated infrastructure. So in Jackson, their water plant is over 100 years old, and they're supposed to be updated, you know, every two to three decades. And that has not happened in Jackson, but versus in rural communities in Louisiana that we visited, you know, they don't even have water lines connecting you to a municipal water plant. Um, so it's really up to the residents to ensure that they, you know, they have their own water well, which is an expensive price tag every year. And that also forces them to be the ones that are doing the kind of testing and maintenance that you would readily expect a municipality to be doing.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Let's talk a little bit more about the responsibilities of those local municipalities. We talked about funds coming from the federal government. What about on more of a local level? How responsible are local municipalities for fixing the issues in their respective cities?

Adam Mahoney: Yeah, I mean, over the last 50 some odd years, the bulk share of responsibility for maintaining water infrastructure has actually been placed on local municipalities. Prior to the mid-1970s, the federal government was responsible for more than half of that spending. But since then, federal spending on water infrastructure has declined by something like 85%, putting that burden on local communities. We have seen that, you know, there are policies that allow communities and cities to apply for federal funding. But that's not an easy process and requires you to have, you know, the staff to be able to sit and do a grant application and then wait on a grant application for months at a time, which does not exist in in many small cities. So then it's just left these communities that are already cash-strapped for other reasons to kind of do piecemeal fixes, bandaid fixes. And then as we see in a place like Jackson, it comes to a head one day, and your community is left without water for weeks at a time.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Coming up, we'll jump across state lines and look at what happens when the water bill comes and isn't paid.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Adam, let's cross over; let's go from Jackson, Mississippi to Louisiana and Opelousas. Let's talk again about municipalities and what they're looking to to try to put a bandaid over these problems. Let's talk about this revenue stream based on scooping up funds by closing overdue accounts. What's going on with that?

Adam Mahoney: Yeah, Opelousas, Louisiana is a semi rural town about an hour outside of Lafayette, only home to 15,000 residents. But it's also the second or third poorest city in Louisiana, and facing a lot of different issues when we're thinking about like, gun violence and lack of educational opportunities. But when we do think of a community that is struggling with poverty, we know, folks, they don't have savings. They don't have extra cash and are strapped and making hard decisions every month on what they can pay for and what they can't. And what we saw in Opelousas over the last couple of years through information released through Louisiana's Public Information Act is that actually the city has been enforcing a pretty predatory practice of closing water accounts that are overdue by just two weeks at a time. So if you're holding funds, you know, you get paid at the end of the month and can't pay your bill until then, and you try to wait three weeks to pay your bill, your account’s gonna get shut off, and then you have to pay — on top of the fees that you already owe, you have to pay to get it turned back on. And we saw that a city of 15,000 people, they've done that practice something like 14,000 times in the last three years. So that really could mean everyone in the city at one point, had their water turned off in a three or four year period, then they're recouping you know, funds two to three times as much as the bills were actually worth just so they can fund their water system, because they don't have that federal backing anymore.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: And for some people, for some customers, that can be a cyclical thing where their water is turned off multiple times, correct?

Adam Mahoney: Exactly, and you're getting pushed further and further in debt. While you might put that $150 back in to get your water turned back on. And then it's still gonna be brown water coming out of your faucet. So it's a kind of a lose-lose situation for folks.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: And it's one thing to be concerned about your personal health, your family's health, if you see, you know, brown water coming out of your faucet and understandably not wanting to drink it. But not having access to clean water also has other effects out of just, you know, your personal health and personal well-being. It trickles into sociocultural and economical ripple effects into communities. Can you tell me more about what you heard from folks in Opelousas, specifically about those ripple effects?

Adam Mahoney: Yeah, in Opelousas, which I mentioned earlier, is one of the poorest cities in Louisiana — it also has the highest rate of violent crime and second-highest rate of gun violence. And in talking to residents and both young and old and community organizers, a lot of folks made the connections between that lack of water access, and that lack of care from government entities, to the way that people on the ground relate to each other, and the high rate of communal violence. There's been multiple studies that have shown that water contamination impacts your mood and your decision making. But increasingly, urban planners and environmental activists have actually pointed to this theory called cues to care. Um, so it just explains that if there is visible maintenance and care and investment to your community, from the powers to be, you know, social cohesion and you know, better communal relationships follow. But if you don't have those things, there is that disruption. Organizers and residents have seen it firsthand in Opelousas.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: So finally, let's talk about Memphis, Tennessee.

Unidentified Speaker: In Memphis, our water is our source of pride. It's some of the best in the world

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: It's a city that, you point out, relies heavily on groundwater supply. But the problem is that groundwater supply is starting to get contaminated.

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Unidentified Speaker: Tonight, we're investigating areas where it's easier for toxic chemicals to leach into that ground and contaminate our precious water supply.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond:

Can you tell us more about what you learned about the situation in Memphis? And what's happening to their groundwater supply?

Adam Mahoney: Yeah, Memphis is another unique situation as another majority black city. At one point it was the largest city in the United States to 100% rely on its groundwater, which is typically a cleaner water source and doesn't require as much water treatment. And at one point was considered the cleanest and sweetest water in the country. But what we've seen over the last couple of decades is that a product of climate change and fluctuating groundwater levels, in addition to industrial contamination, has really threatened that water source.

One of the top 10 most contaminated sites in the United States is actually located in Memphis. A former coal plant that was recently shuttered, that for decades was actually allowing coal ash, which is the byproduct of burning off coal to seep into the soil. And then as that ash seeped into the soil, it then seeped into the groundwater, which impacts now hundreds of thousands of people's drinking water sources.

But it's interesting, because this is a new issue. It's not something that folks in this city really think about often, because you've grown up being told that you have the cleanest water in the country. Why now, would you, you know, question that. And there's a big issue around getting that message out to folks. And I think that also points to you know, the different ways that industrial companies can pollute, when we're thinking about like Louisiana which has the country's highest concentration of petrochemical plants, fossil fuel plants. Folks there know that industry has tainted their water because they see it every day they, you know, a lot of people work at these plants.

Unidentified Speaker: I was a plant worker at one time, we put up a plant off of Old Town Road over here. And we dug a big old hole.

Adam Mahoney: I interviewed one man in Louisiana who actually unbeknownst to him, had helped create a fill pipe into his water source where his the chemical plant he worked at dumped directly into the waterway there.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Wow.

Unidentified Speaker: I thought we was cutting a channel so we could bring a boat in because it was on the river, [but we were] putting a drainage pipe, we were dumping the water in.

Adam Mahoney: Versus in Memphis, when we're thinking about groundwater, something that's invisible, that's, you know, something you're not going to think about everyday because it's not in front of you.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: One of the folks who you spoke with that really stood out to me was Herbert Rigmaiden who lives in Lake Charles. And he put it pretty bluntly and powerfully, the impact of this issue. Can you tell us more about what he told you?

Adam Mahoney: Yes, so Mr. Rigmaiden, well into his 80s, has lived on the same plot of land outside of Lake Charles, Louisiana for his whole life. And, you know, he's seen directly the increased expansion of chemical plants around him, and has seen how it's impacted his lifestyle. As a young man, he watched his mother die of cancer, he now takes care of his younger brother who has Parkinson's disease, which has been recently linked to a specific chemical that is produced at natural gas plants. In addition, you know, he's seen cancer ravage his livestock and his and his livelihood. All while that has been going on, he has seen the Environmental Protection Agency come into his neighborhood and to his community. They've done tests, um, they've held meetings, and they've, you know, proudly boasted multiple times that the water and the air is clean and safe to consume. But at the end of the day, he said they drink the water, and they end up with cancer.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Adam, what do you hope to see next with these repair efforts, both nationally and more locally?

Adam Mahoney: Yeah, that's, that's a big question. And something that we've been thinking about and grappling with. And, you know, just talking to community members, activist and environmental organizations, you know, there is an understanding that at sometimes at the federal level, you know, your hands are tied, in terms of the money that's going to trickle down to your community. What folks are calling for is a direct line, direct communication, because the people on the ground are the folks that really hold the solutions and answers to the crises that, you know, impact them every day, because they're the ones that have to live through it. Rather than someone coming in and telling you how to fix your neighborhood, how to build out this infrastructure. There are people in these communities that know what they're doing, and know what they want to see.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Adam, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me about this

Adam Mahoney: For sure.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: After Adam and I talked, the city of Appaloosas in Louisiana, announced that it has secured a $27 million loan for a new water plant. Another step out of several toward safe drinking water.

Anisa Khalifa: You can check out Adam Mahoney's reporting on the South's water crisis at Capital B. We've dropped a link in this week's show description. This episode of The Broadside was produced by Charlie Shelton-Ormond. Our editor is Jerad Walker. The Broadside is a production of North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC. Find us on your favorite podcast app and on W and c.org. If you enjoy the show, leave us a rating review or tell a friend to tell a friend. I'm Anisa Khalifa. Thanks for listening y'all. We'll be back next week.