City leaders speak publicly about causes of latest boil water notices, conservation notice

Published: Jul. 7, 2022 at 6:21 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - On Thursday, Jackson city leaders addressed why they’ve been relatively out of sight during the city’s latest water crisis.

A press conference was held Thursday afternoon at Jackson City Hall to give residents an update on the city’s latest water issues.

The conference comes nearly two weeks after a citywide boil water notice was issued on June 24, and more than two weeks after its June 21 media briefing to address questions related to the water conservation notice issued that day.

It also is the first time leaders have spoken publicly since the Mississippi State Department of Health issued its own citywide boil water notice for Jackson on June 30.

[Click here to watch the full press conference.]

Meanwhile, as a result of recent issues, the EPA is requesting documents to determine whether the city is in compliance with National Primary Drinking Water Regulations.

“When the state issued a boil water notice, we really were trying to figure out what requirements we had to meet, and if and when we’d be able to meet those requirements to lift the boil water notice,” said Chief of Staff Safiya Omari. “We didn’t want to keep coming before [the public] saying, ‘I think, I think, I think.’ We wanted to let people know when we had some definite information to provide.”

“So, if things stayed the same, and we were still under the boil water notice and we were still distributing water, we didn’t see the need to have a press briefing.”

Omari said things changed Thursday morning when the state gave Jackson the go-ahead to begin testing the water.

If the city has two consecutive clear samples over a 48-hour period, the boil notices can be lifted.

“Although we cannot definitely commit to a specific timeline on this, we expect that the well water notice... may be lifted as early as tomorrow and on the surface water system as early as Saturday,” Omari said.

Omari led the meeting. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba was absent. Omari said the city’s top elected leader was in Washington, working to get federal funding to help address Jackson’s water problems.

Thursday was the first time officials addressed what caused the city’s latest waster issues, which began with an ammonia leak at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant on June 16. Jackson issued a water conservation notice on June 21, just days later.

“When we had the ammonia leak, it caused us to reduce our production, because we had to get the leak fixed. In doing so, our tanks kind of fell below normal operating pressures, and so we had to just kind of work to get those tanks up,” said Deputy Director of Water Operations Mary Carter.

WLBT first reported about the water leak on June 27, after we received a tip from an anonymous source. The city later confirmed that the leak led to the boil water notice and loss of pressure.

During the incident, 200 gallons of ammonia leaked into the atmosphere and the plant had to be evacuated.

Rumors have circulated that some employees got sick as a result of the leak. Omari was unaware if any workers had been affected by the leak and said she wouldn’t be able to talk about it because of HIPAA regulations.

Jackson leaders had not acknowledged the leak prior to our reporting and did not mention it as a reason why the water conservation notice was issued on June 21.

In fact, in a press release related to the conservation advisory, the city only alluded to an anticipated “increased water demand as a result of the higher-than-average temperatures forecast for the next several days.”

City issues water conservation advisory saying they expect a higher demand due to the higher...
City issues water conservation advisory saying they expect a higher demand due to the higher temperatures. No mention is made of the June 16 ammonia leak that helped lead to the notice being issued.(WLBT)

No mention of the leak was made when the June 24 boil water notice was issued, either. In that press release, the city simply explained that there had been “mechanical issues with filtration equipment at the plant, combined with higher-than-normal demand due to prolonged high temperatures,” causing pressure in the system to drop below 65 pounds per square inch.

Omari struggled to say why the city did not make the leak public. “I don’t know what context we would have told you that in, right. All we can do is repair it,” she said. “We did issue a water conservation notice, because we knew we had to reduce water production, and knew with the heatwave there was going to be increased water usage.”

“We did issue the water conservation notice, but that was not enough to keep the pressure at acceptable levels and keep our tanks from depleting,” she added.

The Environmental Protection Agency noted the leak in its recent letter to the mayor and former City Council President Virgi Lindsay.

The agency toured the city’s well water and surface water treatment facilities last week. Chief Administrative Officer Louis Wright said the inspections were routine, and not the result of the recent complications with the facilities. “I talked directly with Carol Kemker and she assured me... [this was] just a routine visit, coming in and doing routine checks,” he said.

Kemker is director of the Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Division with EPA Region 4.

According to the letter, the leak “caused treatment to be disrupted for more than two days” and was one of several factors that led to the conservation notice being issued.

EPA is demanding documents related to the latest water issues with the city of Jackson.
EPA is demanding documents related to the latest water issues with the city of Jackson.(WLBT)

EPA contributed the low production levels at O.B. Curtis to “several conventional filters being down, inconsistencies in membrane train operations, and the inoperable status of High Services Pump #2.”

Jackson issued the conservation notice on June 21. However, by June 24, the request had done little to resolve the city’s water problem, with storage tank levels remaining depleted and system pressure remaining at 68 PSI.

The boil water notice was issued as a result. MSDH followed up with its own citywide boil notice on June 30.

MSDH imposed its notice “due to high turbidity levels in its sampling,” according to a city news release.

Turbidity is the cloudiness of the water. The cloudier it is, the less likely that treatment chemicals can kill all of the disease-causing organisms that might be present.

The city blamed the high turbidity on the lime slurry being used to treat the water.

“There are two chemicals that we like to see used to maintain our pH,” Carter said. “And one chemical was soda ash. The other chemical is a lime slurry. The ash process is... not working right now and we’re using lime slurry. So, our operators have to make sure that they use the correct amount of lime slurry to make sure the turbidity does not exceed our limits.”

MSDH gave Jackson permission to begin sampling again Thursday, once turbidity levels stabilized and pressure levels had gone up.

The city has had problems at the Curtis plant for years. Those problems culminated with the city council approving an EPA administrative order with EPA last year to bring the plant into compliance with federal law.

Among requirements, Jackson has to bring up staffing levels at both plants. However, on Thursday, Omari said the city is still short about 12 workers between both the Curtis and J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plant.

“We’ve been talking mainly about O.B. Curtis, but between Curtis and Fewell, we have at least 12 vacancies and we need to have 24 people,” Omari said. “As I said earlier, we are bringing in contractors, as well as using resources of the Rural Water Association to try to get operators in so that we don’t consistently suffer with these staff shortages.”

EPA is requiring the city to send documents related to the boil water notices seven days from the date Jackson received the letter. The latter was signed digitally by Kemker on June 30, but it was not known when the letter was received.

The full EPA letter is shown in the slideshow below.

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