‘The mayor is trying to play semantics’: MSDH official slams Lumumba in email

Water is allowed to settle at the Curtis plant's coventional basin, before it is chemically...
Water is allowed to settle at the Curtis plant's coventional basin, before it is chemically treated.(WLBT)
Updated: Jun. 18, 2021 at 2:22 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Emails obtained by WLBT shows that a Mississippi State Department of Health official slammed Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba over the mayor’s comments regarding an EPA emergency administrative order.

The correspondence, which was received through an open record request, also shows health leaders lamenting news reports calling into question the city’s water quality, and saying that news of the mayor’s decision to keep the EPA order quiet was part of a much larger story.

“The depth of the story will be coming out with time,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs wrote.

We asked the department to clarify what that statement or any of the statements contained in the emails mean, and they have declined to share details.

In April, it was revealed that the mayor for more than a year had sat on an emergency administrative order handed down by the Environmental Protection Agency that outlined numerous deficiencies at the city’s two water treatment facilities.

As a result, Lumumba faced backlash from several members of the Jackson City Council who said they had been kept in the dark on the order and its details.

Members were particularly concerned that the order outlined numerous deficiencies at the plant that could have impacted water quality.

Lumumba, though, said water quality was never questioned and the state wouldn’t allow Jackson to deliver unsafe water to its customers, telling the council “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.”

Lester Herrington, director of MSDH’s Office of Environmental Health, referenced those comments in an email to numerous MSDH officials, including Dobbs and Jim Craig, senior deputy, and director of the Office of Health Protection.

“The mayor is trying to play semantics in the first highlighted statement, and hoping to deflect the spotlight.”

It was unclear how the mayor was playing semantics, and officials with MSDH declined multiple requests for comment.

Meanwhile, in an email referencing WLBT’s April 13 report, Dobbs lamented that Jackson’s water quality was being questioned. “I’m afraid we are in a similar cycle to previous.”

It was not known what previous cycle he was referring to. However, a response email from Herrington intimates that Dobbs was not happy we were questioning findings in the EPA report related to problems with the ultraviolet filtration systems at the city’s two plants.

Herrington had shared an email explaining the operation of the plants’ UV systems penned by someone only identified as “Bill.”

“I keep seeing references to the UV systems not in operation at the plants. For clarity, those are individual systems for each filter at the O.B. Curtis Plant. If the UV system was down for 3.5 months, so was the filter it is tied to, meaning no water was being produced through that filter and being supplied to the customers. The UV systems only operate when the corresponding filter is in operation.

“For J.H. Fewell, the UV systems are tied to the High Service Pumps and not the filters. If only one service pump is running then only one UV system is running. More service pumps run, more UV systems run.”

The email continues, “The way it keeps... getting thrown out there, it implies that the water was receiving no treatment. The EPA order doesn’t explain that aspect very well.”

It was not clear if MSDH ever attempted to publicly correct media reports regarding water quality.

According to a copy of the EPA order, UV disinfection devices were offline for “significant periods of time at both the O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell WTPs. UV disinfection devices are to be operated continuously.”

The order goes on to state that a UV reactor at J.H. Fewell had been offline all of January 2020 and had been off since October 16, 2019.

EPA conducted its inspections of the plants in February 2020, at the behest of MSDH. Federal inspectors also found that three other reactors at Fewell were down for days at a time, as were five reactors at the Curtis plant.

We attempted to find out more about Herrington’s comments on UV filtration, but efforts to gain any clarity on the emails were rejected.

MSDH Director of Communications Liz Sharlot declined repeated requests for comment, saying that “the public records act does not extend to include access to the agency staff to answer questions of the requestor once the documents are produced. Therefore, we respectfully decline the opportunity to respond to your questions.”

We attempted to reach Dobbs via social media, and our attempts were rejected there as well.

Lumumba was not immediately available for comment.

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