Justice Department steps in amid warnings that Jackson's water system is at a 'breaking point'

Rogelio V. Solis

JACKSON, Miss. — The Justice Department threatened possible legal action against Jackson officials Monday if they don’t agree to negotiations to fix the city’s beleaguered water system, warning that “an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health exists.”

In a letter to Mayor Chokwe Lumumba obtained by NBC affiliate WLBT, Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim detailed long-standing problems with the city’s water system, including a recent crisis that left most residents without running water for days, chronic line breaks and more than 300 boil water notices in the past two years.

“The people of Jackson, Mississippi, have lacked access to safe and reliable water for decades,” Michael Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a news release after a meeting with Kim and Lumumba and a coalition of local pastors in Mississippi’s capital city Monday. “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. These conditions are unacceptable in the United States of America.”

The move from the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division comes less than two weeks after Gov. Tate Reeves and local officials announced that the water in Jackson was safe to drink after a weekslong boil water notice because of problems with turbidity, or cloudiness, which can make it harder to ensure that water is properly disinfected.

Video: Barber slams Mississippi state governor for ignoring the water crisis

But since then, officials have issued new boil water advisories for pockets of the city. And state health officials recently reiterated a six-year-old advisory that pregnant women and children 5 years old and younger should avoid using tap water for cooking and drinking to prevent lead exposure.

The Justice Department gave the city until Wednesday to respond. Lumumba said Monday that his administration intends to cooperate with federal officials.

“We believe that this arrangement represents the best path forward,” he said in a statement.

Reeves’ office has blamed the city for the long-standing water quality issues, but Kim, the Justice Department official, wrote in his letter that both city and state authorities “have not acted to protect public health.”

A spokesperson for Reeves didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the governor wrote on Twitter that he appreciates “continued efforts to ensure that Mississippians in Jackson have clean drinking water.”

Liz Sharlot, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Health Department, said the agency wasn’t included in discussions between the EPA and the city.

Sharlot said that the Health Department, which is responsible for making sure public water systems comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, “has most certainly acted to protect the public health of the customers of the City of Jackson” and that it would be in touch with the EPA soon.

NBC News reported this month that a team from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General had traveled to Jackson to probe the city’s latest drinking water crisis.

In late 2019, the state Health Department notified the EPA about concerns with the city’s water system. An inspection by the EPA raised alarms about problems, including not having enough properly credentialed staff members at the city’s water treatment plants. The EPA also rebuked the city for failing to notify state officials and residents about some of the utility’s water quality violations. The federal agency then issued an emergency order in March 2020 requiring the city to take several steps, including coming up with a plan to replace or repair ineffective monitoring equipment.

As part of an administrative order issued last year under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Jackson was required to make repairs and upgrades to its water system estimated to cost $170 million by certain deadlines. The agreement also mandated that Jackson identify whether the city had any lead service lines, hire appropriately credentialed employees to work at its water treatment plants and finish a corrosion control project designed to prevent harmful contaminants from leaching into tap water.

Jackson is required under the administrative order to give the EPA weekly updates.

A previous public works director for the city said last year that the EPA had informed officials that “as long as we are transparent and progressing and showing effort, the flexibility will come.”

It’s not clear whether Monday’s development affects any previous agreements or deadlines. The EPA’s press office didn’t immediately respond to a question about whether the city was behind on correcting deficiencies.

Kim’s letter cites a number of violations and infrastructure issues, including the previously noted failure to adequately staff its water treatment plants with workers with specialized training. The letter also cites failure to comply with timelines for some repair work, water cloudiness that exceeded acceptable levels and shortcomings in its emergency plan to distribute free water during a crisis.

The Justice Department also flagged the city’s failure to control the acidity of water that flows to residents’ homes. When water grows acidic enough, it can corrode the metal pipes it travels through, allowing hazardous materials like lead to seep from older plumbing fixtures into the drinking water.

As a precaution against lead poisoning, the Health Department issued a warning in 2016 that is still in place cautioning pregnant women and children younger than 6 years old from consuming unfiltered tap water. Prolonged exposure to lead can lead to premature births and rob children of developmental progress.

Over the past three years, the city of Jackson has missed at least two deadlines for a plan to control the corrosiveness of the water. Experts in water infrastructure say corrosion control is a critical and cost-saving step in keeping people safe from lead, and even though tap water samples show lead levels aren’t as alarming as they were in 2015, the city still has more work to do with “optimizing” its control to suppress the threat.

A spokesperson for the EPA’s Region 4, which includes Mississippi, declined to provide details about the city’s progress with corrosion control in a statement, citing “ongoing enforcement activities.”

Some local activists have expressed frustration with the incremental progress, blaming the state and the federal government for missed compliance deadlines as the city struggles to fix long-standing problems.

“Who knows what multiple generations of people have been exposed to while federal agencies and state agencies have dragged their feet and said: ‘Well, Jackson can have more time. Jackson can wait’?” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, the executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, which advocates for abortion rights and also has distributed free bottled water in the city. “I’m not saying that it’s all on the feet of Jackson. I’m saying when does someone actually step in and fix our freaking water so the people of Jackson are not at risk? Because it just can’t always be another four years.”

The city said in a July notice that it expects to finish its corrosion control work almost a year before its May 2024 deadline. But a growing number of residents have joined class-action lawsuits, including a complaint filed on behalf of almost 1,800 children, saying it’s already too late for their families.

Lumumba said last week that he wouldn’t “litigate” the lawsuit in an interview. But he added, “I do believe that there has been a failure to act over these years in a sufficient way — the question is, who are the parties that have failed to do so?”

He defended his administration’s efforts to fix the water system’s challenges, saying that during his term his office has tried to use the resources the city has received to make sure “that the communities that are most disproportionately affected are better served.”

Lumumba said he and his predecessors have pressed state leaders to invest in the city’s water infrastructure.

In a visit to Jackson this month, Regan said the city should get “its fair share” from the roughly $429 million Mississippi will receive over the next five years in federal funds to upgrade water and wastewater systems across the state.

Mark Chalos, an attorney who filed the most recent class-action lawsuit, said many Jacksonians remain suspicious of the city’s water quality.

“Many residents have lost trust in the leadership who are telling them that and are very skeptical of any proclamation from a government official that the water is now magically safe for them to drink,” he said.

Charles Wilson III, 61, is a disabled parent of a 6-year-old boy. He said he welcomes the federal government’s help and oversight, particularly the pressure from the Justice Department and the EPA.

He said he hoped federal officials would act transparently and tell the community exactly what steps they’re taking because state and local officials haven’t had an open process regarding the water’s safety.

“They shouldn’t have to come in. We have a governor, state legislators, city government people who should have been dealing with this for years,” Wilson said. “But because they’re not doing their job, now the federal government has to step in.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com