A group of Jackson, Mississippi residents filed a class action lawsuit Friday over the water crisis that has left more than 150,000 people in the city without access to running water.
The lawsuit is the first federal action that seeks class-action status to pursue damages “against various government and private engineering defendants” for the “negligence, mismanagement, and maintenance failures” that led to the complete shutdown of Jackson’s water system last month, according to a press release.
The lawsuit names the City of Jackson, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, former Mayor Tony Yarber and the city’s former directors of public works, as well as private engineering companies, such as Siemens Corp. and Trilogy Engineering Services LLC, as defendants.
The lawsuit alleges that even before the water crisis left residents without running water for nearly seven weeks, “Jackson’s water supply was not fit for human consumption due to high levels of lead and other contaminants”, violating the plaintiffs’ right to bodily integrity.
Jackson is the state capital and largest city in Mississippi, and 83% of its residents are black.
“This public health crisis, which has been in the making for decades, was entirely foreseeable by the actions of the defendants and has left the people of Jackson in an untenable position – without access to clean, safe water in 2022 in a major city in the United States,” the lawsuit reads.
The plaintiffs allege that due to the water crisis, they were unable to “easily go about their normal daily activities such as going to the bathroom, brushing their teeth [their] teeth and cooking.”
The four named plaintiffs claim to have suffered loss of income and emotional distress from the city’s contaminated water, with some experiencing “various health problems” from consuming it – including dehydration, malnutrition, lead poisoning, brain damage, hair loss and rashes – according to the trial.
One of the plaintiffs, Raine Becker, 44, has lived in Jackson for two years with her terminally ill 7-year-old son, Shylar. Shylar has a heart defect and liver disease that requires a feeding tube that needs to be flushed out with water, Becker told NBC News.
According to the lawsuit, children make up a quarter of Jackson’s residents and “are especially susceptible to the devastating and permanent damage of lead poisoning.”
“I didn’t have clean drinking water for my son,” Becker said. “And if you think how catastrophic that would be for a healthy person, you can think how even more catastrophic it would be for an unhealthy person.”
Becker said she was unaware of the city’s water infrastructure problem until it made headlines last month.
“It didn’t have to come to this,” she said. “They knew what was happening. They knew what the outcome would be and they were just waiting for it to happen.”
Lumumba spokeswoman Melissa F. Payne said the mayor’s office had no comment, citing ongoing litigation.
Late last month, Lumumba told reporters the city had been dealing with the water crisis “for almost two years.”
“I’ve said many times that it’s not about whether our system will fail, it’s about when our system will fail,” he said at the time.
siemens corp. also did not comment, citing ongoing litigation.
Yarber, the former mayor, and Trilogy Engineering Services LLC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A plaintiffs attorney, Mark Chalos, said the named defendants “were responsible for maintaining the water system” but “did not do what they were supposed to do”.
“It’s absolutely a shame that a capital city, the most populous city in the state, in 2022 cannot provide clean, safe water to its residents,” Chalos told NBC News. “There’s certainly a lot of blame to be had, and our investigation is ongoing, and we’ll see where that takes us.”
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency late last month, saying the water crisis threatened “critical needs” after rain and floods pushed the Pearl River at dangerous levels, officials said. President Joe Biden approved a declaration of emergency in the state on August 30, freeing up federal resources to help manage the crisis.
“Until it’s fixed, that means we don’t have reliable running water on a large scale,” Reeves said in A declaration at the time. “That means the city can’t produce enough water to reliably flush toilets, fight fires and meet other critical needs.”
Reeves announced last week that a boil water advisory for the city had been lifted after nearly seven weeks of a water crisis, adding that clean water had been restored but “the system is still imperfect”.
“It is possible, although I pray it is not inevitable, that there will be another hiatus,” he said. “We can’t perfectly predict what’s wrong with such a flawed system.”
Chalos said officials’ statements that the city’s water is safe to drink have not necessarily won the trust of all residents.
“Many locals have lost faith in leaders telling them this and are very skeptical of any proclamation from a government official that the water is now magically safe for them,” he said.
In addition to unspecified compensatory and economic damages, the lawsuit seeks relief that includes the removal of lead pipes, the provision of an adequate water supply to each home, and an injunction preventing Jackson residents from paying for water. contaminated water.
A team from the Office of the Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency is carrying out a top-to-bottom examination of the causes of the crisis.
The agency released a lengthy report in 2020 outlining major shortcomings in the city’s water system, including failed lead pipe replacements, faulty monitoring equipment and inadequate staffing.