Energy & Environment — Why Jackson residents don’t have water

We explain what’s happening to the water in Jackson, Miss., plus a study says the federal government is underestimating the cost of climate change. Meanwhile, California passed a slew of climate legislation.  

This is Overnight Energy & Environment, your source for the latest news focused on energy, the environment and beyond. For The Hill, we’re Rachel Frazin and Zack Budryk. Someone forward you this newsletter? Subscribe here. 

Jackson faces a water crisis

Flooding exacerbated existing problems with water infrastructure in Jackson, Miss., leaving residents of the city with more than 150,000 people without potable water to drink.  

The most immediate cause of the problem was flooding from the city’s Pearl River that ran into the streets. This flooding caused issues at the city’s O.B. Curtis Water Plant on Monday.  

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) said in a Monday night press conference that the water treatment facility’s main pumps had been severely damaged, and that the facility was using smaller backup pumps.  

  • He said that some front-line workers tried to hold the system together, but that the system was expected to eventually fail.  
  • “That failure appears to have begun today,” Reeves said on Monday.  

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D) said in a Tuesday press conference that the issues were caused by “a lack of pressure in the system … that was complicated by the flood waters that we received.” 

Reeves said Monday that the situation meant that the city can’t produce enough water to fight fires or reliably flush toilets. Reeves also urged the public not to drink the water coming from their pipes, saying it was likely to be untreated.  

But these issues aren’t new: In February 2021, a winter storm caused similar issues in the city, and some people were without water for weeks. The same water treatment plant’s equipment froze up at that time because of the cold weather. The city also experienced water issues in November.  

Even before that, in 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspectors found a host of issues in the city’s water system including: a lack of clarity in the water; leaks and line breaks in the city’s water distribution system; broken and uncalibrated monitoring equipment at the O.B. Curtis plant; and inadequate staffing at both that plant and the city’s J.H. Fewell treatment plant. 

  • The report also said that portions of the J.H. Fewell plant, which provides a smaller amount of the city’s water, are more than 100 years old and in a “general state of disrepair.” 
  • The EPA further found that the city did not fully implement lead and copper monitoring requirements and also did not make efforts to replace its water service lines that are made from lead . There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, and lead exposure can damage children’s brains and nervous systems.  

In the Tuesday press conference, Lumumba described the city’s problems as long-standing.  

“This is a set of accumulated problems based on deferred maintenance that has not taken place over decades,” he said. 

Read more about the issue here.  

THE FEDERAL RESPONSE  

BIDEN: President Biden on Wednesday spoke by phone with Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D) about emergency response efforts to the water crisis in the state’s capital.   

A White House aide said that Biden phoned Lumumba “to hear firsthand from the mayor about the urgent situation with access to clean and safe water.” 

The two discussed emergency response efforts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “and the president expressed his determination to provide federal support to address the immediate crisis and the longer term effort to rebuild Jackson’s water infrastructure,” the aide said.   

Biden late Tuesday signed an emergency declaration that frees up federal resources to supplement the state’s own emergency response, authorizing FEMA to mobilize equipment and resources to the area.   

FEMA: FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell will travel to Jackson on Friday to meet with people who are affected by the crisis. The agency’s efforts are focused on making sure people have immediate access to safe drinking water, a spokesperson tweeted.  

EPA: EPA Administrator Michael Regan tweeted late Wednesday that he deployed staff to Jackson for an emergency assessment of the treatment plants and expedited the delivery of equipment.  

Biden underestimates climate costs: study 

The social cost of carbon is significantly higher than the federal estimate, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Nature.  

Researchers put the financial toll associated with projected future carbon emissions at $185 per ton of carbon pollution added to the atmosphere, more than three times the federal government’s figure of $51. 

They arrived at the conclusion in part by using a lower discount rate, or the cost-benefit analysis of reducing emissions now versus the future impacts of inaction. Lower discount rates result in higher estimates for the price of inaction.  

“Our estimate, which draws on recent advances in the scientific and economic literature, shows that we are vastly underestimating the harm of each additional ton of carbon dioxide that we release into the atmosphere,” co-author Richard G. Newell, president and CEO of the think tank Resources for the Future, said in a statement. 

So what? “The implication is that the benefits of government policies and other actions that reduce global warming pollution are greater than has been assumed.”  

The current federal social cost of carbon estimate is itself the Obama-era estimate. Upon taking office in 2017, the Trump administration dismantled the working group that made the estimate and announced a dramatically smaller estimate of $1 to $7 a ton. 

The Biden administration has since restored the $51 estimate but has pledged to update the number.  

The White House originally said that the updated figure would be published “no later than January 2022” but has yet to announce an update. The Hill has reached out to the White House for clarity on the timeline. 

Read more about the study here. 

California approves climate bills  

California state lawmakers passed an array of climate bills late Wednesday as their legislative session ticked to a close and amid an ongoing heat wave that threatens to cripple the state’s electricity grid. 

While advancing several climate measures, legislators also voted to extend the shelf life of a fiercely disputed nuclear plant — a move supported by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) as a reliable backup for California’s transition to clean energy.  

“Among the legislation to receive a green light and head to Newsom’s desk for a signature is S.B. 1020, which would require 90 percent of the state’s electricity to come from clean energy sources by 2035 and 95 percent by 2040. Those are interim targets toward a 100 percent goal for 2045, and all electricity procured for state agencies would need to come from clean energy by 2035, according to the bill. 

A second key item to get a go-ahead was S.B. 1137, which would prohibit oil drilling within 3,200 feet of places where residents live, work and learn, if signed into law.  

Other bills approved by the legislature would allocate significant funds to clean transportation and energy, establish a statewide carbon capture program and create an incentives-based plan to promote the use of sustainable aviation fuel

Read more from The Hill’s Sharon Udasin.  

TEXAS DEALS WITH CLIMATE ISSUES  

As the Western U.S. suffers under its worst drought in a millennium, the government of Texas, a state that faces its own unique set of dangers from extreme weather, is at last turning to deal with the threat that climate change poses to its long-term water supply.  

Texas’s situation is sufficiently dire that in July, a majority-Republican panel on the state legislature voted unanimously to require the state water planning board to consult with the state climatologist as it advises cities in planning to meet the state’s water needs in the future.   

The rule change “removes the possibility that the political climate could harm [local water officials’] ability to plan responsibly for the future,” state Sen. Nathan Johnson (D), a major backer of the shift, told The Hill.  

“It kind of insulates the regional water authorities from political pressures that would harm their ability to do what they need to do,” Johnson said. 

But that process won’t bear fruit for years — and Texans increasingly worry that the crisis is here now.  

All or nothing weather: The most recent demonstration of the volatile climate was last month’s flash downpours that stunned Johnson’s hometown of Dallas — a record rainfall that interrupted the city’s longtime drought, running off baked earth and acres of asphalt infrastructure to flood much of the city.  

  • Those kinds of events offer a foretaste of the future Texas can expect, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe told The Hill.  
  • “You saw record dry conditions week after week after week — and then all of a sudden, a summer’s worth of rain in a single day,” Hayhoe said.  

For much of the state, annual levels of rainfall may not change much — but that average conceals potentially lethal extremes of drought and flood, she said. “The amount of precipitation is staying the same. But the distribution is changing. It’s getting more extreme in both directions.”  

Read more about the issue here, from The Hill’s Saul Elbein.  

This story is part of The Hill’s “Dried Up” series. Also in this series: 

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • The Tragedy of North Birmingham (ProPublica
  • Why California wants to give residents $1,000 not to have a car (The Washington Post
  • Firefighters Battling Wild Blazes Are Suffering From Anxiety, Addiction—and Can’t Find Help (The Wall Street Journal
  • August saw no named storms for only the third time (E&E News
  • Mississippi Crisis Highlights Climate Threat to Drinking Water Nationwide (The New York Times

ICYMI

🤔 Lighter click: We can meme…and so can the government.

That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s Energy & Environment page for the latest news and coverage. We’ll see you tomorrow.  

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