Federal Judge Henry I. Wingate scheduled a status conference for 10 a.m. Wednesday between Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and the court appointed Third Party Administrator Ted Henifin to clear up an apparent difference they have over the level of safety of the drinking water supplied by the Jackson Public Water System now under the control of Henifin.
“On June 14, 2023, the Mayor of the City of Jackson, Mississippi, called a press conference to announce the City’s distribution of free water filters to a certain class of citizens, who might be harmed by Jackson’s alleged poor water quality,” Wingate wrote in his order for a status conference with the two executives.
“This court is concerned whether the Mayor’s comments comport with the progress that has been made on water quality by the efforts of the Interim Third Party Manager, Ted Henifin.”
Wingate has judicial oversight of the Interim Stipulated Order (ISO) that assigned Henifin as the Third Party Administrator of the Jackson Water System. The ISO was jointly agreed to by the city, state and federal governments.
“The Mayor is hereby directed personally to attend,” the judge ordered. “Additionally, the Interim Third Party Manager is also ordered to attend in person this status conference.”
In what was billed on June 14 as a goodwill effort to protect the health of pregnant women and children under the age of five, Lumumba announced that the city was offering free home water filters supplied by United Healthcare for the two vulnerable groups.
The mayor said that the city still receives health alerts cautioning that the city’s water might be dangerous for pregnant women and children under 5.
At a March 7 town hall meeting at Millsaps College, Henifin spoke extensively on some of the nuances of the health issues associated with the Jackson water system that Lumumba might not be aware of.
Henifin said Jackson’s water system was cited by the EPA for exceeding the tolerable lead amount once in 2015, “but has not had one exceedance since then.”
“A lot of confusion over lead in Jackson, a lot of misinformation,” Henifin said. “This is not Flint. Our problem has been not getting water to people, not poisoning people with the water.”
After the 2015 report on lead in the water, Jackson failed to follow through on an “enhanced corrosion control plan” that the EPA required, Henifin said.
Until the city has completed its enhanced corrosion control plan, it is required to print notices that pregnant women and children under five may face a health threat.
“This is another sort of Jackson self-inflicted wound,” Henifin said. “If we had been a little faster in getting enhanced corrosion control, the faster we can take that disclaimer off.”
Work is currently under way at the O.B. Curtis and the J. H. Fewell water treatment plants to bring the system up to EPA standards, he said.
“We’re finishing those last contracts right now,” said Henifin. “The last piece of that is happening at both water plants, where carbon dioxide is being put in place to be injected into the treatment system to control pH appropriately. We’re controlling it in other ways. This is just what we’ve put into the plan that was approved by the health department. We just need to finish that and we can get rid of it (the disclaimer).”
Henifin is responsible for the $600 million omnibus grant the federal government promised once the ISO was signed.
JXN Water, the administrative group set up by Henifin operates independent of city or state control, received the first $115 million under the plan on June 9.
At his weekly press conference Tuesday, Lumumba said he is in the right.
“Everything I communicated was factual and correct,” he said. “Our efforts were sound.”
Lumumba also said the city’s legal department had prepared “a more complete response” to the judge’s concerns about possible misinformation the mayor might have given out at his earlier press briefing. “I look forward to talking to the judge,” he said.