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EPA administrator says it's 'all hands on deck' in Jackson, Miss.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's look at the water crisis in Jackson, Miss., by some of the numbers. More than 150,000 people have now gone 39 days without water deemed safe enough to drink. Jackson is still under a boil water advisory. For about a week, many didn't have access to running water at all. The Environmental Protection Agency has tracked critical problems with Jackson's water infrastructure for years now. EPA Administrator Michael Regan just wrapped up a press conference with local leaders there. He talked about the federal money available to help fix the system.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MICHAEL REGAN: The state of Mississippi will receive more than $26 million in 2022, and that's on top of 30 million that's available in 2021 loan funds for Jackson. And that is also in addition to 13 million that is currently in existing - in an existing capacity as well.

SHAPIRO: But here's one key challenge. Federal money has to get past state leaders to reach the city. This crisis has highlighted tensions between the Republican governor and the Democratic mayor. Still, the two appeared together at the press conference and appeared to show a united front. Before that meeting, I talked with EPA Administrator Michael Regan as he drove through Jackson about his role getting clean water to the city in the short and long term.

I know you're getting a firsthand look at some of the issues that Jackson's water treatment facilities have experienced in recent flooding. But before we get into that, tell us what you were aware of in recent months and years leading up to this latest crisis.

REGAN: We absolutely have been in touch and working with the City of Jackson for a number of years. And so we were aware that this was a fragile water utility. And the latest storm and the flooding caused by the latest storm really was the straw that broke the camel's back.

SHAPIRO: All right. So tell us about how you're going to fix this right now, because I know you've had staff in Jackson for more than a week getting equipment into the water plants that have been affected by this. What is the most pressing issue that you are focused on at this moment?

REGAN: Our concern in the immediate term is to get the water plant up and running and ensure that the people of Jackson have access to safe, healthy water. I'm also going to convene a meeting today with the governor of Mississippi and the mayor of Jackson to talk about committing to developing a strategic plan, a specific plan that will stabilize the system in the near and longer term.

SHAPIRO: This seems like one of the key issues here is the tensions between the state leadership - Republican leadership and the city leadership who are Democrats. I mean, the governor, Tate Reeves, said on Monday that Jackson had failed to present the state with details on a long-term plan to fix the city water system, which the mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, said is just not the case. So in your view, what's the issue here and how does it get resolved?

REGAN: You know, I had the opportunity to visit with a Jackson resident this morning, 98-year-old Mrs. Anderson (ph). And she told me that she was tired of the finger pointing and that she wanted some solutions. And so the reason I'm here today is to sit down with all parties and take a close look at what we need to do collectively in an expedited fashion to move forward with some solutions for the people of Jackson.

SHAPIRO: So you're not taking sides.

REGAN: (Laughter) Well, you know, right now, I think there will be plenty of time in the foreseeable future for us to figure out who did what and when. Right now, the people of Jackson need good quality drinking water, so it's all hands on deck.

SHAPIRO: Do you believe that this is evidence of structural racism? After all, the state's leaders are largely white and Republican. And the local city leaders are Democratic, and they oversee a city that is more than 80% Black.

REGAN: Well, we know that this problem has existed for decades. And there is no question that Black and brown communities have been underinvested in and underserved. And Jackson is no different. And yes, racism has been a factor in these problems for far too long. But this problem predates all of us that are trying to solve this problem today. And so what I hope to do is not be divisive, but bring everyone to the table and focus on the task at hand.

SHAPIRO: Beyond convening state and city leaders, let's talk about the role of the EPA here. Jackson's mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, spoke to A. Martinez, one of the hosts of NPR's Morning Edition today, and he talked about the EPA's role in getting money from the federal infrastructure law to the city of Jackson. Here's part of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A MARTINEZ: Did President Biden - and quickly on this - did he give you a timeline? He said it was a priority, but did he give you a timeline?

CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: No timeline, but he told me the agencies that he would have working on it - FEMA in the short term and the EPA for the long-term goals.

SHAPIRO: Do you have a timeline on when more infrastructure funding and how much will reach Jackson?

REGAN: Well, absolutely. Listen. There's $30 million available right now for Jackson. And part of today's discussion will be focusing on, how does the city and state come together to unlock access to that $30 million that's available through the state revolving loan fund right now?

SHAPIRO: Does the state have to be a gatekeeper here? Is there any way for the money to reach Jackson without state approval?

REGAN: You know, there's a partnership here. It's the way the law is structured. And whether it's the existing $30 million or the resources through the bipartisan infrastructure law, the process is that it goes from the federal to the states to the city. But let me be clear. I've written a letter to every governor in all 50 states outlining the criteria that we expect to be associated with these resources. And cities like Jackson are prime candidates for these resources.

SHAPIRO: There are a lot of cities and states that are in a similar tug of war, trying to get federal dollars to places that need it most. And you, as EPA administrator, cannot mediate between governors and mayors in every state where this is happening. Is there a better solution?

REGAN: You know, we've worked with a number of governors, Republican governors and Democratic governors, all across the country to redesign their definition of disadvantaged communities to be sure that no one's being locked out. And as the federal agency, we're going to look at these resources, look at the competitive grant applications in each state. And if states are not abiding by the criteria that has been, you know, put forth by the legislature - the legislation - excuse me - then we're going to withhold those funds until those plans reflect the true intention of the bipartisan infrastructure law, which is designed for over half of those resources to go to disadvantaged communities and communities that need these resources the most.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell residents of Jackson how much longer they're going to have to keep boiling their water?

REGAN: We're working night and day to get the system back online. And that's state, federal, local and contractors night and day to get this facility back online. And we'll keep doing that until we can provide or until the city can provide the people of Jackson good quality drinking water.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you want to make any promises, but any rough forecast even - days, weeks, another month?

REGAN: You know, we're hoping for the foreseeable future. Listen. I was just at the water treatment facility meeting with the operators, meeting with the emergency response team. Everyone is all hands on deck. And I think - you know, the site lead said to me that he was optimistic that we were exceeding expectations. It's my hope that the people of Jackson have good quality drinking water as soon as possible.

SHAPIRO: EPA Administrator Michael Regan speaking with us from Jackson, Miss. Thank you very much.

REGAN: I thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.