City council approves EPA administrative order governing Jackson water system

Public Works Director Charles Williams discusses how water is processed at the O.B. Curtis...
Public Works Director Charles Williams discusses how water is processed at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.(WLBT)
Published: Jun. 30, 2021 at 12:08 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - An agreement that officials say will make the city of Jackson more accountable in repairing and maintaining its water treatment systems has been approved.

Wednesday, the Jackson City Council voted unanimously to enter an administrative compliance order with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Up next, the city must submit numerous plans to the agency to outline how and when it will make equipment repairs and upgrades, how it will increase staff, and how it will maintain the plants once the upgrades are in place.

The roughly hour-long meeting had a much more cooperative tone than the Tuesday meeting, which ended with the order being tabled until Wednesday.

Several council members questioned why the agreement was presented to the council at a special meeting, while others questioned how and whether the city could pay for provisions in the order.

Estimates provided at the council’s Tuesday meeting showed the work could cost as much as $170 million, with $50 million to $70 million needed for plant improvements and another $100 million needed for distribution system upgrades.

Public Works Director Charles Williams worked to allay those concerns, saying that order is more about accountability than spending.

“Everybody knows the situation Jackson is in, and they all have extended a helping hand as to what they can do to assist as long as we’re making the effort to move forward,” he said.

He said the city is currently looking for funds to tackle some of the provisions in the agreed order and is applying for nearly $30 million loans from the Mississippi State Department of Health to address filtration system needs at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Facility.

The Lumumba administration has been in talks with the EPA since December. The city found out last week that it had to have the document signed by June 30, Chief of Staff Safiya Omari said.

The item was added to the council agenda late Thursday, but most council members did not learn about it until Monday.

The order comes about after months of discussions and after inspections by the regulatory agency last February unearthed numerous deficiencies at the city’s O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plants.

Among concerns, the agency noted inoperable filtration and treatment equipment, as well as a lack of staffing.

Under provisions, Jackson must immediately begin implementation of a comprehensive equipment repair plan included as part of the order, and within 30 days provide the agency with a plan to ensure the plants are fully staffed.

Council members were worried Jackson didn’t have the funding to fulfill the order’s requirements, in part, because of complications in the water/sewer billing department.

“We have a lot of tasks laid out before us. My big concern is a plan for funding, so the work does get done and we’re able to provide clean drinking water for the citizens,” Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote said.

Council President Aaron Banks questioned whether the city could increase salaries for plant operators using general fund monies.

“My only concern in doing it is making sure we don’t put stress on the enterprise side,” he said. “And if the money is there and we can raise these (salaries) to competitive levels to retain and recruit... let’s just put the numbers to it and we’ll do what we need to do.”

Omari said Tuesday that the mayor would not agree to an order the city could not fulfill.

Williams said the EPA would be willing to work with the city, as long as the city showed a “good-faith effort” in meeting the order’s stipulations.

“One thing we stressed to the EPA going through these iterations was the funding and how we could come to a compromise where both sides would be at ease,” he said. “As long as we provided information (and) showed a good-faith effort going forward, they were going to be flexible as it relates to timelines and funding.”

Typically water operations and water system improvements are funded through the city’s water/sewer enterprise fund. That fund is generated by collections from water/sewer bills.

However, that fund has taken a major hit in recent years, due to complications from the city’s Siemens contract. Siemens was brought on in 2012/13 to completely overhaul Jackson’s metering and billing system.

Two officials from the EPA Region 4 Office watched the meeting online. Neither commented on the discussion.

Meanwhile, Williams said the city was already making progress on some of the EPA requirements.

Since 2019, he said the city has taken out roughly $18 million in loans to make improvements at the plants.

A copy of how the $18 million was spent is shown below.

Among improvements, the city built a new pedestrian bridge at the Fewell plant to allow workers to better monitor the water intake structure at the Pearl River. Fewell, located at the Waterworks Curve, treats water brought in from the Pearl.

The city also has brought on a contractor to construct a membrane enclosure at O.B. Curtis, something that would better protect the filtration systems in the event of another winter storm.

In February, winter storms caused the membrane system at Curtis to freeze, crippling the plant’s ability to produce water.

Funds also were used to continue the city’s corrosion control study and to pay Cornerstone, a consulting firm, to help train workers at both plants.

Staffing and corrosion were among several issues that must be addressed as part of the newest order.

Under terms, Jackson must provide EPA with a corrosion control treatment plan within seven days of the order’s effective date. It also must provide a lead line service replacement plan within 30 days of the effective date.

Corrosion issues began years ago thanks to the high acidity of the city’s water. Jackson switched from lime to soda ash during the treatment process, to decrease the water’s acidity.

The council also discussed staffing at the plants.

The EPA previously noted that both plants were understaffed and needed to have a Class A operator on duty at all times.

Curtis and Fewell are both classified as Class A plants and must have a licensed Class A operator on duty 24 hours a day “to address system needs and problems as they occur,” according to the Mississippi State Department of Health.

Ideally, he said the city needs 12 operators at each plant, including three or four senior licensed operators, four licensed operators to support senior staff members, and four non-certified operators in training.

Currently, the city has five licensed staffers at J.H. Fewell and three licensed operators (two full-time and one part-time), and four unlicensed operators at Curtis.

The city, though, has had difficulty recruiting workers and maintaining staffing levels at the plants, in part, because of low salaries.

Base pay for plant operators runs between $28,652 and $34,392 annually. For Class A operators, it runs from $32,795 to $39,448.

Williams told the council the salaries need to be between $40,000 and $50,000 for the city to be competitive.

Council members said they would support a pay increase for those workers if the funds were in the budget.

“Dr. Williams, we would welcome that from your department,” Ward Seven Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay said. “I think you would get a good bit of support from the council, if not 100 percent.”

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