EXCLUSIVE: Emails reveal lack of maintenance led to citywide boil water notices
State health officials were worried about a ‘critical system failure.’
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - State health officials say Jackson’s recent water crisis could have been prevented, had the city done regular maintenance to its water system.
Emails between Jackson, Mississippi Department of Health employees and later the Environmental Protection Agency shed new light on the June water crisis, which led to a water conservation notice and multiple boil water alerts being issued.
Correspondence shows the city knew the equipment failures that led to the crisis were imminent but did little to prevent them from happening.
Last month, tens of thousands of water customers across the state’s largest city and in Byram were impacted when problems at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant and with the well systems again impacted water production.
Due to the problems, the city was forced to issue a water conservation notice to conserve water and later had to issue boil water notices after pressure in the system dropped.
State officials, meanwhile, fretted about a “critical system failure” occurring.
William Moody, director of the Bureau of Public Water Supply for MSDH, took the city to task for failing to do maintenance, asking why it did not address potential equipment failures sooner.
“The consistent delays in timely maintenance have hampered [O.B. Curtis’] ability to properly respond to the demands placed upon it,” he wrote.
Additionally, Moody said the city’s three-pronged approach to addressing the June crisis seemed more like a maintenance plan than an emergency response.
“These plan points should have been enacted earlier when it was apparent that pressures, tank levels, and plant output were dropping,” Moody wrote.
Jackson Deputy Director of Water Operations Mary Carter briefed MSDH on the city’s plans in a June 23 email.
The plan included replacing valves on the membrane side of the Curtis plant, doubling back to problematic water towers to ensure valves were properly opened or closed, and working with Constituent Services to set up water stations for residents.
Those efforts were hampered, though, in part, because the city had to wait for parts to arrive.
That fact could be seen in the city’s delayed efforts to address the ammonia leak that led to the water conservation notice.
Contractors were on site the day after it occurred to drain an ammonia tank. However, the replacement valve didn’t arrive for several days and repairs did not wrap up on the tank until June 24.
Moody pointed to other problems at the plant, as well, including sludge buildup in the sedimentation basins.
The basins are used on the Curtis plant’s traditional treatment side. Water brought in from the Barnett Reservoir enters the tanks, and sediment and other debris are allowed to settle before the water is treated.
At the time of Moody’s June 24 email, sludge in those tanks had built up to 15 feet.
“The capacity limit, as the Bureau understands it, is 17 feet,” he wrote. “If not resolved, this sludge buildup will put additional stress on... already stressed conventional filters.”
The state asked for additional details on the city’s response, including the timeline for when the valves would be repaired, when additional personnel resources would be brought in to assist at the facility, and whether the city would be willing to accept help if it were offered.
The EPA also asked to be looped in on the city’s progress.
Jackson’s water concerns are nothing new. In February 2021, customers were without water for weeks after winter storms ravaged the system and cut production at the O.B. Curtis facility.
That same year, an electrical fire again took out production at the plant, but only for a matter of hours.
At a press conference on July 7, Chief of Staff Safiya Omari highlighted the city’s struggles and worked to reassure residents the city was working to address the June crisis.
At the time, Jackson’s water customers had been under a boil water notice for two weeks.
“We’re doing our best. We’re doing the best we can to improve this situation as quickly as we can improve it,” she said.
She said the city’s biggest problem in addressing challenges with the water system was the lack of money. She said the city is putting forth about $50 million in projects to address problems at Curtis, but could not recall them off the top of her head.
“That’s outside my knowledge... I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head what they are, but they are projects that will definitely improve the operations at the plant,” she said.
The latest problems began in mid-June, with an ammonia tank leak at the Curtis facility.
That leak was caused by a defective valve and began on or around June 15. A water conservation notice came days later, on June 21. MSDH recommended issuing the notice on June 18.
“We did issue a water conservation notice because we knew we had to reduce water production, and we knew with the heatwave there was going to be increased water usage,” Omari said. “But that was not enough to keep the pressure at acceptable levels and keep our tanks from depleting.”
The notice did not inform residents of the ammonia leak. Instead, they were only told that the notice was due because of an expected increase in water demand.
Meanwhile, emails show that amid the crisis, at least three of the Curtis plant’s six membrane filtration units went down, further cutting water production capacity at the plant.
In her correspondence with MSDH, Carter detailed efforts to repair the membrane filters and ammonia leak. As of June 24 problems persisted, and pressure in the water system fell to 65 PSI.
At 65 PSI, many residents in South Jackson and Byram lose water service altogether. The city hosted regular water giveaways throughout the crisis.
State leaders were worried that a major system failure was looming and asked for answers.
“Despite everyone’s desires and the conservation efforts encouraged by the city, it appears plant production and system pressure continue to move in a negative direction. What can you communicate regarding the city’s plans to resolve the issue before critical system failure?” asked Les Herrington, director of MSDH’s Office of Environmental Health.
The crisis also prompted EPA to request documents from Jackson to determine whether the city was is in compliance with National Primary Drinking Water Regulations.
The regulations, according to the EPA’s website, are “legally enforceable primary standards and treatment techniques that apply to public water systems.” They are designed to protect public health.
It was unclear if the city had provided those documents.
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