Jackson public works director discusses efforts to address lead in the water

Public Works Director Charles Williams.
Public Works Director Charles Williams.
Published: Jul. 1, 2021 at 8:14 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Six years after the city of Jackson was first cited for high levels of lead in its water, officials say they are making strides to address it.

In November 2019, the city finished work on a nearly $2.7 million project at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant to make the water treated there less corrosive.

And in June, the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) signed off on an amended plan to address corrosive water at the J.H. Fewell Plant.

By making the water less corrosive, it is less acidic and less like to corrode pipes, reducing lead levels.

Public Works Director Charles Williams discussed those efforts a day after the city council’s decision to enter an agreement with the EPA to address concerns with its water treatment and distribution systems.

On Wednesday, the council approved an administrative order giving EPA greater oversight of the city’s efforts to bring its water system into compliance with federal law.

Williams’ discussion also comes months after the city received notice from EPA that it was out of compliance with federal law for failing to implement corrosion control treatments at both plants.

In April, the Lumumba administration received a notice of noncompliance from the federal regulatory agency for failing to implement a corrosion reduction plan at Fewell, despite being given an extension to do so by MSDH.

Williams said the city was out of compliance because the state had yet to sign off on an amended version of its corrosion control plan.

“If you remember back in 2016, when we first had the lead issue, we brought on Trilogy to put together a corrosion control study. They recommended the city change from lime to soda ash,” he said. “We did that at the Curtis plant, but also they recommended that at J.H. Fewell, we do the same.”

To determine lead levels, water samples are taken from homes at various points in a system’s service area.

In 2015, those tests showed elevated levels of lead in the water. Follow-up tests at the same sites in 2016 showed levels continued to be high at 13 of the 58 homes visited.

Information from a 2020 noncompliance notice outlines the city's challenges in addressing lead...
Information from a 2020 noncompliance notice outlines the city's challenges in addressing lead in the water.(WLBT)

Williams said part of the problem stemmed from the way water was being treated.

At the time, Jackson was using lime in the water treatment processes at both plants.

Lime causes water to become more acidic, which can erode pipes in homes and municipal distribution systems. The same water can also erode lead fittings, causing levels of the toxic metal found in drinking water to go up.

To address that problem, the city agreed to convert its two surface water treatment plants to using soda ash, a substance that lowers the acidity and pH levels in the water, Williams said.

Jackson finished the work at Curtis, the city’s larger plant, in November 2019.

The administration then asked if it could hold off on making the upgrades at Fewell.

“Based on the chemistry of the water at the location, we felt it was never a violator, so why change the treatment process?” Williams asked. “We asked the health department if we could leave Fewell alone and the agreement was we would amend the study and that was approved in June.”

Jackson brought on a second consultant, Cornerstone, to draw up the modified plans, which included adding a CO2 element to the treatment process at Fewell. Williams said the CO2, like the soda ash, will improve the alkalinity and pH of the water leaving the plant.

The city was working on an amended plan when it received an EPA notice in April that it was out of compliance. He said the city is now working to implement that plan and is expected to turn a copy of it over to the EPA in the next week for review.

Under terms of the EPA order, Jackson has to provide EPA with numerous plans on how it will increase staffing and how it will repair and maintain equipment at its water treatment facilities. Jackson also must provide the agency with a corrosion control treatment plant within seven days of the order’s effective date.

Said Williams, “All of this is being done with the goal to improve water quality. That’s the overall objective of what we’re trying to achieve.”

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