Current Jackson water crisis comes to an end

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Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba at community forum at College Hill M. B. Church Tuesday, September 13. (Advocate Photo by Joshua Martin)

The Jackson water system has been restored to its original state before the current crisis, Gov. Tate Reeves announced at a 1 p.m. press conference Thursday.

The boil water notice for all City of Jackson customers has been lifted. Water throughout the system is again cleared for drinking and all other uses in place before July 1, said the governor.

Pregnant women and children under the age of five should filter their drinking water, but all other cautions on water use have been removed, state health officials said.  

Going forward, the O. B. Curtis water processing plant will be under the direction of a temporary program management contractor that was signed off on at noon Thursday, MEMA Executive Director Steven McCraney said at the press conference.  

“The program manager will look at everything that we’ve done up to date, where we are, what are all those construction things we’ve done on that site, and then what’s next,” McCraney said. “What are the second, third and fourth steps we’re going to have to go on? That’s something we’ve engaged with the department of health and others on the site, to make sure that we’ve got that in our pocket and continue on to make O. B. Curtis the actual water production site that it can be.”

McCraney said the crisis team consisting of city, state and federal officials that was put in place after the state and federal emergency declarations of August 30 will continue in place until late November. 

Teams from EMAC (Emergency Management Assistance Compact) and the Mississippi Rural Water Association have been onsite supplementing O.B. Curtis staff. Team members came from South Carolina, Michigan, Maryland and Ohio and include operators, mechanics, instrument technicians and maintenance. The Ohio team will work at J.H. Fewell Water Plant today.

COMMUNITY FORUM

At a community meeting Tuesday, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told a sizeable audience that presenting a plan to remedy Jackson’s current water crisis is not the real issue at the bottom of the current crisis.

“Not only this administration but every administration in recent history of the city of Jackson has had some type of plan,” he said. “There’s a difference between not having a plan and not having the mutual priorities over its funding.” 

The state government has rarely given Jackson’s development plans the serious attention that they needed, the mayor said.” Producing plans for capital improvements costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said, and when the legislature or the governor fails to accept them, then that’s money flushed down the drain. 

Willing to put past slights aside, Lumumba said he wants to concentrate on how “to build a reliable system that’s sustainable and equitable.”

Jackson Chief Financial Officer Fidelis Malembeka shared the stage with Lumumba, reporting that the city council had just adopted the city budget for fiscal 2023. The new budget includes $30 million for water infrastructure, and $8 million for sewer infrastructures. The county will allocate $17 million of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to the city, he said. 

At least a dozen members of the audience spoke out during the open-mic phase. 

Good Samaritan Evelyn Ford felt threatened by uniformed officers as she made efforts to pick up water for some of her sick and shut-in neighbors at the Smith-Wills site. Denied additional water by a National Guardsman, she was confronted by a state trooper and was told to leave. “If I had disobeyed his command, I’d probably be in jail,” she said. 

Leon Louisville called for recruiting more businesses to occupy the vacant buildings in Jackson. Attract factories to use the buildings and warehouses and bring “real jobs” to Jackson, he said. Rev. Deon Thompson complained about the lack of accountability of the elected officials from Jackson, citing their absence from Tuesday’s forum and their frequent votes against the interests of the people of Jackson as an example. 

GAINING SUPPORT

The mayor is gaining increasing support and helpful advice from Water Alliance, an impressive number of water engineers and disaster and recovery experts willing to lend their expertise to help Jackson. Among these are Gen. Russell Honoré, commander of the Joint Task Force Katrina, who rose to national prominence with his bold leadership during the hurricane disaster of 2005.

The general, says Lumumba, is “vigorously fighting” to restore the water treatment facility and to also make sure the water distribution lines serving homes, businesses, and other institutions are brought up to speed as well.

Working together with the EPA, the Corps of Engineers, FEMA, and MEMA, the City of Jackson should be able to restore its water to a high quality and sustain it at that level, he said. 

“How beautiful it would be for us to solve this decades old problem in our lifetime,” Lumumba said. “And that’s where we are.”

Lumumba reminded the audience that Jackson must retain control of its water system, the only asset that a municipality really owns. He spoke of the possibility of adopting a third-party operation and maintenance agreement but disparaged the idea of subjecting Jackson to any kind of regionalization, privatization, or a possible state takeover. 

Lumumba also announced that he and Gov. Tate Reeves had approached the Small Business Administration asking for SBA Economic Industry Disaster Loans for Jackson’s impacted small businesses and nonprofits. 

During Jackson’s water crisis, restaurants, bars, lounges, and coffee shops were severely hampered. Daycare centers were unable to keep their facilities clean, and hotels saw a sharp decline in reservations due to lack of water, Reeves said in his letter to SBA.

DRINKABLE WATER

On Monday, the mayor echoed Reeves’ prediction that clean and drinkable water should begin flowing to Jackson households and businesses again “in days, not weeks.” 

The city’s water pressure has been restored to an above normal level, Lumumba announced, repeating a similar announcement by Gov. Tate Reeves during a  press conference five days earlier.  The prospect of drinkable water from the city’s water system is still on hold, however. The boil water notice of July 29 is still in place, the mayor said.   

In a Sept. 11 interview on  CBS’ “Face The Nation,”  the mayor also projected that “we believe that it’s a matter of days, not weeks before that boil water notice can be lifted,” Lumumba said.

“Before we can lift that boil water notice, we have to know what’s in the distribution line,”  Lumumba said.  

“I think you will be able to measure that in days, not months or weeks,” Reeves said about the availability of drinking water in the delivery system.

EPA INVESTIGATION

Just as the team composed of local, state, and federal water systems experts got closer to solving the immediate crisis, the EPA’s Inspector General’s Office (OIG) announced that it would conduct a “top-to-bottom” review of Jackson’s water system.

“Given the magnitude of the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, it is critical that the EPA OIG act with a sense of urgency to understand what has happened in that community,” Inspector General Sean O’Donnell said Tuesday. “I have directed a multi-disciplinary team of oversight professionals to look into Jackson’s drinking water system. We have begun the process of conducting interviews and collecting data related to the oversight of the water system and administration of the state’s water revolving funds. That information will provide a basis for decisions about additional work to follow.”

The Inspector General is an independent office within the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The EPA OIG is keenly interested and concerned about what is happening in Jackson, Mississippi,” said EPA spokesperson Jennifer Kaplan. “Last week, we began sending OIG personnel to collect data and conduct interviews, and over the coming week we expect to announce work related to the city’s water system.”  

Lumumba said he was pretty much in the dark about why the OIG was in Jackson. 

“Do you know the scope of this? Are your actions as mayor being investigated?” CBS host Margaret Brennan asked Lumumba Sunday.

“No, no one has talked to me,” he said. “I do not know the scope nor the timeline in which they’re investigating. But I can share that to the extent that they will be speaking to city employees, I will direct them to cooperate with any investigation,” Lumumba said.In response to a Jackson Advocate inquiry, EPA Public Affairs Director Brandi Jenkins said Tuesday that the Inspector General is an independent office within the EPA and is staffed by teams of auditors, evaluators, and criminal investigators. She did not specify which team would be conducting the review in Jackson

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Current Jackson water crisis comes to an end

By Earnest McBride
September 15, 2022