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Justice Department steps in amid warnings Jackson’s water system is at ‘breaking point’

JACKSON, Mississippi — The Justice Department on Monday threatened possible legal action against Jackson officials if they did not agree to negotiations to fix the city’s beleaguered water system, warning that “there there is an imminent and substantial danger to human health”.

In a letter to Mayor Chokwe Lumumba obtained by NBC affiliate WLBT, Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim detailed longstanding issues 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 advisories in the past two years.

“Residents of Jackson, Mississippi have not had access to safe, reliable water for decades,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan said in a news release. after a meeting with Kim and Lumumba and a coalition of local pastors in the Mississippi capital on Monday. “After years of neglect, Jackson’s water system finally hit breaking point this summer, leaving tens of thousands of people without running water for weeks. These conditions are unacceptable in the United States of America.

The move by the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division comes less than two weeks after Governor Tate Reeves and local officials announced Jackson’s water was safe to drink following a week’s notice. boiling due to turbidity or cloudiness issues, which can make it difficult to ensure the water is properly sanitized.

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

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

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

Reeves’ office blamed the city for the long-running water quality issues, but Kim, the Justice Department official, wrote in his letter that city and state officials “n ‘have not acted to protect public health’.

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

Liz Sharlot, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Health, said the agency was not included in discussions between the EPA and the city.

Sharlot said the health department, which is responsible for ensuring public water systems comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, “has most certainly acted to protect the public health of customers. of the City of Jackson” and that he would be in contact with the EPA soon.

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

In late 2019, the state health department notified the EPA of issues with the city’s water system. An inspection by the EPA sounded the alarm about problems, including a lack of properly certified personnel at the city’s water treatment plants. The EPA also faulted the city for not informing state officials and residents of 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 actions, including proposing a plan to replace or repair ineffective surveillance equipment.

Under an administrative order issued last year under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Jackson had to make repairs and upgrades to its water system estimated to cost $170 million in certain deadlines. The deal also required Jackson to identify if the city had any lead service lines, hire duly certified employees to work at its water treatment plants, and complete a corrosion control project designed to prevent harmful contaminants. to seep into tap water.

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

A former city public works director said last year that the EPA advised officials that “as long as we are transparent, move forward, and push hard, the flexibility will come.”

It’s unclear whether Monday’s development affects previous agreements or deadlines. The EPA press office did not immediately respond to a question about whether the city was behind on fixing the 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 meet deadlines for some repair work, water turbidity that exceeded acceptable levels, and shortcomings in its contingency plan to distribute free water in the event of a crisis.

The Justice Department also pointed to the city’s inability to control the acidity of water flowing to residents’ homes. When water becomes sufficiently acidic, it can corrode the metal pipes it passes through, allowing hazardous materials like lead to seep from old plumbing fixtures into drinking water.

As a precaution against lead poisoning, the Department of Health issued a warning in 2016 which is still in place warning pregnant women and children under 6 to consume 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 water corrosivity control plan. Water infrastructure experts say controlling corrosion is a critical and cost-effective step in protecting people from lead, and even though tap water samples show lead levels aren’t as alarming as If they were in 2015, the city still has work to do in “optimizing” its control to remove the threat.

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

Some local activists have expressed frustration with the incremental progress, accusing the state and federal government of missing compliance deadlines as the city struggles to resolve longstanding issues.

“Who knows what multiple generations of people were exposed to as federal agencies and state agencies dragged their feet and said, ‘Well, Jackson can have more time. Jackson can wait,’?” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, which advocates for abortion rights and has also distributed free bottled water in the city. rests on Jackson’s feet. I say when does somebody step in and fix our fucking water so the people of Jackson aren’t in danger? ‘Cause it can’t always be four more years.

The city said in a July notice that it plans to complete its corrosion control work nearly a year before its May 2024 deadline. But a growing number of residents have joined class action lawsuits, including a lawsuit filed on behalf of nearly 1,800 children, saying it is already too late for their families.

Lumumba said last week that he would not “argue” the lawsuit in an interview. But he added: ‘I believe there has been a failure to do enough over these years – the question is, which parties have failed to do so?

He defended his administration’s efforts to fix problems with the water system, saying that during his tenure, his office tried to use the resources the city received to ensure “that the communities most disproportionately affected are better served”.

Lumumba said he and his predecessors pressed heads of state to invest in water infrastructure in the city.

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

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

“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.

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

He said he hopes federal officials will act transparently and tell the community exactly what actions they are taking, since state and local officials have not had an open process regarding water 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 are not doing their job, the federal government must now intervene.

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