The City of Jackson laid the groundwork and made the required arrangements to take charge of its water supply operations on November 17 after two and a half months of direct emergency intervention by the state of Mississippi and the federal government.
Following a closed-door meeting with city and state officials at Jackson State University on Tuesday, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael S. Regan announced in a late afternoon public forum that while the “emergency response” is near resolution, both the EPA and U.S. Justice Department expect mid- and long-term agreements to follow.
“We continue to work closely with the mayor and the City of Jackson, the state of Mississippi, and FEMA as part of the emergency drinking water response effort,” Regan said. “EPA and the Department of Justice want to develop a judicially enforceable agreement, one that is approved by and overseen by a federal court.”
The Jackson City Council is expected to vote on this agreement on Thursday, Nov. 17.
Jackson has been chosen as the first stop on what Regan calls the EPA’s Journey to Justice Tour, a renewed emphasis on civil rights enforcement in dealing with the issues of environmental injustice.
Four temporary Class A water operations managers were brought into the Jackson system Monday and will work alongside the understaffed city crew that has been in place since the reopening of the plant under the Unified Command Structure put in place in September by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) along with the Corps of Engineers.
Some members of the City Council questioned the high cost of the four Class-A managers, about $400,000 for the first 10 weeks, with a cap of $720,000 for the duration of the contract that ends Feb. 28, 2023. The temporary managers are supplied by Water Talent of Sherman Oaks, CA.
“It is an expensive proposition,” said City Council President Ashby Foote following Tuesday’s forum. “And I’m hoping that we can get full-time people with operator skills and credentials who want to move to Jackson. We hope to come up with a pay scale that works for them, so that we’re not just doing it 10 weeks at a time.”
Council Vice President Angelique Lee said the four temporary managers were hired because the state was pulling out on November 22.
“It was part of our EPA requirement to make sure that we have Class A certified operators 24 hours a day on staff,” Lee said. “So, we did that. The order which we will receive, hopefully tonight, will be voted on by the city council Thursday.”
NAACP National President Derrick Johnson, a resident of Jackson, sat through the hour-long meeting and came away with the assurance that the city would be under no threat of state intervention once the new operations were in place.
“What the state had was federal dollars, and the only reason they are stepping out is because the federal dollars will end,” Johnson said.
Johnson says the city and the federal government will be working together to bring safe, clean drinking water back to the people of Jackson. The state’s role will become “moot,” he said. Jackson is the only municipality in Mississippi that has to have its federal rescue money approved by two state agencies. The l,l00 other municipal water supply systems require approval of only one, the Department of Environmental Quality.
“The federal government is going to partner with the city for a long-term solution and a fix,” he said. “We have seen this crisis across several administrations. The state has starved the city of resources, and it’s been the federal government’s resources they’ve used to starve the city. Now the federal government and the city will partner to make sure those resources will get to the problem, so the citizens of Jackson will have a permanent fix.”
The EPA administrator, however, said that some state agencies have been necessary to secure some of the funding Jackson needs.
“We’ve worked actively with state agencies to help the city get federal funds made available through both the bi-partisan low interest loan program and the American Rescue Plan,” Regan said. “I’m confident that, [by] working with the state and the city, we can continue to identify resources to help stabilize Jackson’s water system.”
Jackson’s water system has been subject to temporary failures for more than 40 years. But the current crisis came with the breakdown of the O. B. Curtis water processing plant caused by rainstorms and the flooding of the Pearl River in August. Jackson had already been under a boil water notice since July 29.
On August 30, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and President Joe Biden issued emergency proclamations after a months-long breakdown of Jackson’s main water processing and delivery system, the O. B. Curtis plant in Ridgeland. Jackson’s residents had been left without drinkable water for over a month after a flood of the Pearl River overwhelmed the city’s main water processing plant. The second plant was unable to provide enough water to keep the system flowing.
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Homeland Security Agency were in overall charge of the project for 90 days, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and the State Department of Health took on the tasks of repairing the city’s two water supply plants and distributing millions of bottles of water to Jackson’s 160,000 households and businesses.
The relations between city government and the governor were frequently contentious and ran along separate tracks. The federal emergency order ends November 29. The end of the state’s direct intervention is scheduled for Nov. 22, and Jackson announced that it would have the required personnel in place on Nov. 17 to again take charge of its water supply operations.