REPORT: Jackson dumped 6B gallons of under-treated wastewater into Pearl River last year

A major cleanup effort at Eubanks Creek was nixed last month after a sewage leak occurred there.
A major cleanup effort at Eubanks Creek was nixed last month after a sewage leak occurred there.(WLBT)
Published: Oct. 18, 2021 at 6:55 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Court records indicate Jackson is still out of compliance with its federal sewer consent decree, despite entering into the agreement more than eight years ago.

An August status conference report revealed the city had “achieved only limited progress” on implementing some decree mandates, while it had not yet begun implementing other “crucial” elements.

Meanwhile, the report shows that Jackson continues to struggle with sanitary sewer overflows throughout its collection system, as well as prohibited bypasses at its Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant.

In 2020, Jackson reported 376 SSOs, which spilled more than 523 million gallons of untreated wastewater into the environment.

And thanks to another 11 prohibited bypasses at the Savanna plant, another 6 billion gallons of partially treated wastewater was discharged into the Pearl River.

By comparison, in the five years prior to entering the decree, Jackson had over 2,300 sewer overflows and numerous prohibited bypasses at the Savanna facility.

Jackson entered into the decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency in March 2013.

Under terms of the agreement, Jackson would spend around $400 million to bring its sewer system into compliance with state and federal water laws.

Among requirements, Jackson was required to evaluate and rehab its wastewater collection and transmission system, Savanna Plant and West Bank Interceptor.

The city also was required to implement numerous programs to ensure proper operations and maintenance of the system, such as a plan to respond to sanitary overflows, and a FOGS program, to encourage and prevent businesses from pour fats, oils, and grease into the sewer.

Jackson was initially given 17.5 years to complete the work.

However, according to court records, the city “has not yet begun crucial elements of the consent decree” while other elements “remain significantly delayed.”

“Most importantly, the city has not initiated the evaluation of its WCTS – more than two years after the deadline for doing so – nor has it started the necessary rehabilitation of its WCTS.”

WCTS is Jackson’s wastewater collection and transmission system, which includes the underground lines that serve homes and businesses.

Jackson has made some progress, including spending some $136 million on capital improvements to its sewer system. Jackson also has made “timely” upgrades to its West Bank Interceptor, according to the report.

The interceptor is a major sewer transmission line that runs along the west bank of the Pearl River. It is the main line that serves the Savanna plant.

Attorneys for the capital city say they haven’t completed other work, in part, due to “financial difficulties.”

Those difficulties stem from complications with its water billing system, the downgrading of Jackson’s bond rating in 2018, the declining income level of ratepayers, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jackson also cites the decision of the West Rankin Utility Authority (WRUA) to come off the city’s sewer system.

WRUA, which serves thousands of homes and businesses in west Rankin County, recently began using its own wastewater treatment plant.

Previously, it had paid the city millions of dollars a year to treat waste at the Savanna plant.

“The city states that this will result in a reduction of annual revenues collected by Jackson to support its water and wastewater system and the consent decree,” according to court records.

Jackson’s financial outlook had improved, though. The Lumumba administration had settled its lawsuit with Siemens Industry for nearly $90 million. A portion of that went to bring Jackson into compliance with its water bond covenants.

However, attorneys for the feds seem to take issue that none of those funds went to decree-related work. “After payment of attorneys’ fees, $59.8 million was available to address some of the city’s obligations under the consent decree. The city maintains that it was necessary to commit the majority of these funds to re-establish compliance with bond covenants, repay the city’s general fund, and repair the meter and billing system.”

The city also told the court at the time that it was expected to receive some $42 million in American Rescue Plan funds, which it was still determining how to spend, including look at “critical water and wastewater funding needs.”

To date, the administration has spent just $12.7 million on infrastructure, with $8 million going toward replacing a 48-inch water main, $1.8 million going toward sanitary sewer evaluation services, and $950,000 going toward design and construction administration for projects at the city’s water treatment facilities.

Another $5.7 million in ARPA funds went to help cover police and firefighter pay raises, while the mayor hopes to allocate millions more to spur economic development.

The city claimed that “regardless of the ultimate amount... directed to water and wastewater improvements... the city maintains it will have financial difficulties complying with the consent decree as it is currently structured.”

Since it was implemented, overall costs for the decree have skyrocketed. Today, the city estimates that it will take nearly $960 million to bring the sewer system into compliance. That’s on top of the nearly billion dollars it needs to upgrade its water system.

Jackson is currently in talks with EPA to amend the order, with EPA and MDEQ assessing the city’s financial condition. From there, the agencies will “evaluate the (city’s) proposed modifications, and (whether) the parties are endeavoring in good faith to reach an agreement on them.”

An updated status report is due October 29.

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