Dept. of Justice says water not safe, prepared to file action against Jackson under Safe Drinking Water Act

Published: Sep. 26, 2022 at 11:58 AM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The U.S. Department of Justice is prepared to file an action against the city of Jackson under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but hopes negotiations with the city can prevent the need to.

Monday, DOJ notified Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba that it was prepared to file a complaint against the city under the Safe Water Drinking Act, citing years of problems with Jackson’s water system.

However, the department also is urging the city leaders to begin “immediate negotiations” on a path forward, in an effort to stave off that potential legal action.

“We are prepared to file an action... but would hope this matter could be resolved with an enforceable agreement that is in the best interest of both the city and the United States,” wrote Todd Kim, an assistant attorney general with DOJ’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division. “We hope you will join us to discuss the path forward in our shared goal of ensuring reliable delivery of safe drinking water to the people of Jackson and Hinds County”

Kim goes on to state that DOJ believes that when it comes to Jackson water, “an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health exists, as evidenced by the roughly 300 boil water notices that have been issued over the past two years, the multiple line breaks during that same period, and the recent drinking water crisis.”

He asked the city to respond to the department’s request by September 28, and for an initial meeting between city leaders, DOJ, and the Environmental Protection Agency to begin this week.

The news comes about a month after the state took over operations at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant after equpment failures there left tens of thousands of people without water. It also comes as EPA Administrator Michael Regan makes his third visit to the capital city in less than a year.

On Monday, Regan met with about two dozen pastors at New Hope Baptist Church to discuss the water situation. He also met with city leaders prior to that meeting to begin talks on the future of Jackson water.

“The people of Jackson, Mississippi, have lacked access to safe and reliable water for decades. After years of neglect, Jackson’s water system finally reached a breaking point this summer, leaving tens of thousands of people without any running water for weeks,” he said in a statement echoing what he told religious leaders. “These conditions are unacceptable in the United States of America.”

Jackson’s most recent water crisis began on August 29, when equipment failures at Curtis cut water service for tens of thousands of people. At the time, much of the city had been under a state-imposed boil water notice for a month, one that the city had been unable to get lifted prior to the crisis.

The crisis, along with the boil water notice, prompted a visit from EPA recently, where Regan heard from residents first-hand. The crisis also prompted EPA’s Office of Inspector General to launch an investigation into Jackson’s water emergency.

During this visit, Regan said he “conveyed [the agency’s] desire to work with the city to reach a judicially enforceable agreement that ensures a sustainable water system in the mid and long-terms.”

Exactly what that that enforceable agreement looks like remains to be seen. For its part, DOJ is seeking a “comprehensive plan for remedying the violations and a schedule for implementing that plan.”

Additionally, DOJ states that any negotiations with the city would include the implementation of “accountability mechanisms, such as temporary third-party management of the system.”

Regan wouldn’t say whether the third-party management would come in the form of a takeover but told reporters that all options are currently on the table.

“There are lots of conversations about a lot of things,” Regan said, standing outside New Hope’s sanctuary. “We want to work out a situation where there’s judicial oversight and an agreed upon strategy on how we move forward, how we spent federal dollars, how we make financial decisions.”

Meanwhile, he said his office would be working with the mayor, governor, and Congress “to ensure that we put together a package that expedites the delivery of clean, reliable, and safe drinking water to the people of Jackson.”

Gov. Tate Reeves said on social media that he “appreciate[s] continued efforts to ensure Mississippians in Jackson have access to clean water. Work continues via the state’s incident command structure to pump out clean water in the short-term and this represents the potential for long-term solutions.”

We reached out to the Governor’s Office for further comment and are waiting to hear back.

Previous EPA mandates, including its 2012 sewer consent decree, are unfunded, meaning Jackson must bring the system into compliance without help from the federal government. The city is currently working to modify the terms of the 2012 decree, arguing it cannot afford its nearly $1 billion price tag.

Kim states that Jackson still must address violations associated with its wastewater decree and that talks regarding the water system and wastewater system could overlap.

Regan didn’t say how long negotiations related to the water system would take. “We are responding with a sense of urgency. I’ll be speaking with the governor, I believe, later this week. Our schedules didn’t align today so he and I could have a conversation,” he said. “But I want to be clear. There is a sense of urgency amongst all of us to resolve this as quickly as possible.”

Dept. of Justice says water not safe, prepared to seek legal action against Jackson under Safe...
Dept. of Justice says water not safe, prepared to seek legal action against Jackson under Safe Drinking Water Act(WLBT)

In its letter, DOJ outlined six Safe Drinking Water Act violations by the city, including a failure to adequately staff water plants, failure to implement an alternative water supply plan pursuant to EPA’s previous emergency order, failure to comply with a timeline for general filter rehabilitation, failure to install corrosion control pursuant to the federal lead and copper rule, the exceedance of certain contaminant levels, and exceedance of turbidity levels.

In August, a WLBT investigation revealed that personnel shortages at the city’s two water treatment facilities were so severe that a loss of one employee could have trigged a plant shutdown. Our subsequent review of timesheets submitted to EPA showed water operators that remained on staff logged hundreds of hours of overtime in a matter of weeks to ensure that the plants were staffed at all times with Class A-certified workers, a requirement under state and federal statutes.

As for turbidity, the high levels of turbidity led to a state-imposed boil water notice put in place for all of Jackson’s surface water customers on July 29. Turbidity is the cloudiness of the water. The higher the turbidity, the more likely it contains disease-causing pathogens that were not killed during the treatment process. That notice remained in place until mid-September, after the state had made numerous improvements at the Curtis plant.

Lumumba, who does not support a state or federal takeover of the water system, says he believes Regan understands Jackson’s challenges, and that the EPA, under Regan’s leadership, will work with the best interests of the city in mind.

“I thank him for bringing forward a vision for the EPA that isn’t merely about its regulatory function, which is valued and necessary, but also an understanding of what communities are really facing,” he said. “Based on ongoing conversations, and even our discussion today, I’m happy that we’re moving forward in a collaborative effort, in a collaborative way.”

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