Mayor says EPA order not about water quality; a copy of the order seems to say different

Mayor says EPA order not about water quality; a copy of the order seems to say different
EPA sends Jackson emergency executive order on water system

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said Jackson water quality is not unsafe, and that an EPA order is more “a discussion over process than it is over quality of water.”

Tuesday, Jackson leaders discussed an emergency administrative order handed down by the Environmental Protection Agency regarding the city’s public water system.

Lumumba refused to go into details during the open session but said Jackson’s water quality has never been in question.

“I would say this is more a discussion over process than it is over quality of water,” he said. “It would be not only a failure of the city of Jackson, (but) it would be a failure of the Mississippi State Department of Health … for us to OK bad water for the residents of Jackson.”

A copy of the March 2020 Emergency Administrative Order from the EPA, though, seems to say different.

In it, the agency states that “conditions exist at the system that present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the persons served by the system.”

Federal officials conducted inspections at the O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell water treatment plants, at the behest of the state health department.

The order goes on to state that the EPA identified numerous concerns related to “bacterial contamination and proper disinfection.”

EPA did an inspection of the city’s water treatment plants in February 2020, after the city failed to provide the proper reports to the agency for nearly three years.

Among findings, EPA determined that equipment at both plants was not properly calibrated to “provide accurate dosing for proper treatment of drinking water.” In other words, the city could not determine whether it was putting the accurate amount of chemicals in the water being treated.

Inspectors also found that monitoring equipment at O.B. Curtis had not been repaired or calibrated in three years after a technician position at the plant had been vacated. Respondents also were unable to perform membrane integrity tests and had failed to perform filter maintenance at both plants.

Curtis provides water to more than 43,000 connections across the city. It treats water brought in from the Ross Barnett Reservoir.

Meanwhile, jar tests, which are used to check things like the amount of sedimentation in treated water, were not up to industry standards.

As for water quality itself, turbidity exceedances had been reported at both plants in January 2020.

Turbidity, or the cloudiness of the water, is a good indicator of whether disease-causing organisms are present.

“Particles of turbidity provide shelter for microbes and reduce the microbes’ exposure to disinfectants,” the EPA states. “if particulate material is not removed, a high turbidity event can provide shelter for and promote regrowth of pathogens in the water, leading to an outbreak of waterborne diseases.”

Samples taken on Feb. 23, 2021, at the height of the city’s water crisis, showed samples had turbidity levels of greater than 1.0 turbidity units, much higher than the industry standard of 0.3 turbidity units the city said at the time.

Inspectors found other problems, as well, including UV disinfection devices that were “offline for significant periods of time” at both water treatment plants, with one at the Fewell plant being offline for 3.5 months. Eight other UV reactors were offline anywhere from two to 31 days, the report stated.

“Despite actions taken by MSDH, the local authorities have not undertaken all actions necessary to protect the public health, and conditions exist at the system that may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of persons served by the system,” the report states.

Pumps at the O.B. Curtis malfunctioned following the winter storm, contributing to the city's water crisis.
Pumps at the O.B. Curtis malfunctioned following the winter storm, contributing to the city's water crisis. (Source: WLBT)

Lumumba said the council needed to go into executive session to discuss the matter, arguing that the administration was still in talks with the EPA regarding compliance.

He further claimed the city had not shared more details of the EPA’s findings, saying a final order from the federal agency had not been handed down.

“The reason we haven’t sent (it) out is because the draft hasn’t been finalized by any party. When there is a completed document that both the EPA and the city of Jackson agree to, it will be issued,” he said. “It would be premature to do it prior to that.”

Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote attempted to challenge the mayor on claims that the order was still in draft form, but was shut down by Council President Aaron Banks, who also said the matter needed to be discussed in a closed session.

Foote said the administration was in talks with EPA over a potential consent decree regarding its water treatment plants. However, those negotiations were separate from the 2020 administrative order.

“He’s trying to cover up the fact they didn’t tell anyone about this,” he said.

The councilman also asked why the mayor was unwilling to discuss the EPA’s findings in an open forum, saying that it was bad optics for city government.

The mayor has been criticized for not informing residents about the EPA order, despite it being handed down more than a year ago.

“One of the biggest problems with this issue is the fact that there was no public announcement when it happened in March 2020. I didn’t find out about it until a week ago,” Foote said.

Documents obtained by WLBT through an open record request bring into question the mayor’s claims Tuesday that the order issued by the EPA was a draft document.

In the March 27, 2020 correspondence to Lumumba, the EPA states that the order “constitutes a final agency action” under the Safe Water Drinking Act. However, it goes on to state that the city could seek federal review.

Excerpt from EPA letter saying the March 2020 order was a "final agency action" under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Excerpt from EPA letter saying the March 2020 order was a "final agency action" under the Safe Drinking Water Act. (Source: WLBT)

And in an April 1, 2020 letter the mayor sent to the agency, Lumumba seems to understand that fact.

“The city will use its best efforts to rectify the deficiencies identified in the Emergency Administrative Order. I acknowledge the gravity of this situation and the responsibility to ensure a safe supply of drinking water to the public.”

In that document, Lumumba went on to say that the city “looks forward to working with the EPA and the Mississippi State Department of Health to achieve compliance with this … Order as quickly as practicable.”

A copy of the mayor’s letter to EPA is shown below.

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