Jackson denies open record request related to EPA emergency order

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A boil order has been issued in Maynard.((Source: Pablo))
Updated: Apr. 17, 2021 at 3:37 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The city of Jackson has denied a request from WLBT for all emails related to an Emergency Administrative Order requiring the city to bring its water treatment system into compliance with federal law.

In March 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency order to the city requiring it to address numerous deficiencies at its water treatment plants.

The report had been kept under wraps for more than a year until exposed recently in local media.

3 On Your Side had requested any and all emails related to the order.

However, in a one-page response, Public Works said that the emails are “protected by attorney-client privilege, the attorney work doctrine or as settlement negotiations in an ongoing enforcement action.”

The response is dated April 13, but was not released until Friday, April 16, days after Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba defended his decision to not make the order public at a Jackson City Council meeting.

“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.

Correspondence associated with the March 27 order, though, seems to contradict the mayor’s claims that the order was still in the negotiation stage, with the EPA calling it a “final agency action.”

Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote said the city is in talks with EPA regarding its water system but on an issue separate from the 2020 order.

He said those negotiations should not prohibit Jackson from releasing the documents requested.

Foote said the correspondence likely would have shed light on the city’s efforts to address deficiencies and bring the system into compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. “Those things are important for citizens to know,” he said. “That shouldn’t be held back because the city is negotiating a future [item].”

We reached out to Jackson Director of Communications Michelle Atoa for more clarification on the city’s response, but she had not gotten back to us at the time of this report.

EPA visited the city’s water treatment plants in February 2020 at the behest of the Mississippi State Department of Health.

The agency found that conditions existed at the plants that “present(ed) an imminent and substantial endangerment to the persons served by the system.”

Among findings, EPA determined that equipment at the plants was not properly calibrated to “provide accurate dosing for proper treatment of drinking water. Inspectors also found that monitoring equipment at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant had not been repaired or calibrated in the three years after a technician position at the plant had been vacated. The city also was 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. J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plant serves customers in most of Belhaven, parts of Fondren, and downtown Jackson.

The order went on to say that “based on evidence of turbidity exceedances, disinfection treatment concerns, and/or the condition of the distribution system, the system has the potential to have the presence of E.coli, Cryptosporidium or Giardia.”

The bacteria listed can cause numerous intestinal problems in humans, including watery diarrhea and stomach cramps.

Turbidity, meanwhile, refers to the cloudiness of water. Because the water is cloudy, it is harder to treat using ultraviolet methods, like the ones used at Curtis and Fewell.

“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.”

The city was cited three times for turbidity issues in 2020, including one at the Curtis plant, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health’s website. Violations occurred between Jan. 1 and Feb. 29 of that year. In each case, customers were notified of the violation, MSDH states.

Under the order, the city had to:

  • develop and implement a plan to address all monitoring equipment repairs and replacements;
  • address dosing processes for disinfection and pH control;
  • develop and implement a plan to provide alternative drinking water when specific triggers are met;
  • take additional total coliform bacteria samples under prescribed conditions.

Foote said the city is in compliance with the 2020 mandates, but said “the unwillingness of the city to share with citizens information related to safe drinking water is very troubling.”

A copy of the denial letter is shown below.

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