Did staff shortages lead to Jackson’s latest water crisis? EPA wants to find out.

EPA seeking more information on staffing shortages at city's water treatment plants.
EPA seeking more information on staffing shortages at city's water treatment plants.(WLBT)
Published: Jul. 25, 2022 at 3:51 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - EPA wants to know staffing levels at Jackson’s water treatment plants, including whether enough personnel were on duty during the city’s most recent water crisis.

In June, the city issued a water conservation notice and boil water notice after issues at the plant led to cuts in water production at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.

Later, the state issued its own boil water notice, citing continued treatment issues at Curtis.

In a letter sent to the mayor, council president, and other city leaders just days before the crisis ended, EPA issued a demand for several pieces of information related to water treatment staffing.

Among items, the agency sought the total number of hours worked in the weeks before and during the water crisis, as well as a description of any open and or vacant positions at the facilities.

Jackson was given seven days from the date of the correspondence to submit the information.

As of Friday, the information had not been submitted, according to City Attorney Catoria Martin.

Martin was not immediately available for a follow-up comment on Monday afternoon.

Council President Ashby Foote said the demands are a sign the administration has not made it a priority to fill positions at its plants or bring the city into compliance with EPA regulations.

“There’s supposed to be 24 people for the two plants, and we’ve only got 12,” he said. “We’re 50 percent of where we should be.”

“That’s why EPA is so upset. Look at the tone of the questions [in the letter]. They lack confidence that the city is sincere in trying to fill those positions.”

While it was hard to make out the tone of the questions in the letter, it was clear EPA wanted answers fast.

If Jackson did not submit answers by the EPA’s deadline, it could face up to $62,689 in fines, as well as other sanctions under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Foote said the city asked for an extension last week to provide the information, but was turned down. “The point is, you have to do what the EPA tells you to do,” he said Friday. “They [the administration] asked for an extension because they were trying to get the information together. But there were only six questions. The email came in the first couple of days of July. Today is July 22.”

Staffing challenges, including the requirement to hire Class A water operators, are nothing new for the Capital City.

Water systems in the state are classified based on factors including size, the types of water being treated, the number of service connections, and the like. Certifications indicate that the individual operators have the skill and knowledge to properly run those plants.

As part of a 2021 agreed order, EPA stated that Jackson’s water system “is not always fully covered by a Class A-certified operator,” which is a violation of Mississippi statute.

State law requires Jackson to have at least one operator with a Class A certification on duty at all times. Ideally, Jackson would have at least 7 at each plant to ensure coverage when workers take vacations, get sick, or take off for other emergencies.

It is unclear how many Class A workers are currently employed at either the O.B. Curtis or J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plants.

Meanwhile, the city has at least six openings at each facility, something Chief of Staff Safiya Omari discussed at a press conference on July 7.

“We’ve constantly talked about staff shortages. We’ve talked about the need for Class A water operators,” Omari told the media that day. “We’ve let everybody know that we are one of two plants in the state that requires Class A operators, so there [are] not a whole lot of them floating around for us to bring into work. So, yes, we do have staff shortages. And that does affect the operation of the plant.”

Various issues contributed to the June water crisis, beginning with an ammonia leak at the Curtis plant around June 15. The city also reported half of its membrane filter systems at the plant were not working.

A water conservation notice was issued on June 21. Days later, on June 24, a citywide boil water notice was issued. The Mississippi State Department of Health issued its own boil water advisory for customers on Jackson’s system, citing high levels of turbidity in the water.

Turbidity is the cloudiness of the water. The more cloudy it is, the more difficult it is to kill pathogens that may be in it.

The city blamed the turbidity levels on the lime slurry being used during the treatment process. “There are two chemicals that we like to see used to maintain our pH,” Deputy Director of Water Operations Mary Carter said. “And one chemical was soda ash. The other chemical is 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.

The notices were lifted earlier this month after two clean samples of water were taken.

The latest crisis aside, Jackson’s struggles to staff up are evidenced by a quick review of the annual overtime and salary expenditures for the Curtis facility.

According to city budgets, Jackson spent $423,090.97 on salaries for Curtis workers in fiscal year 2021, compared to $632,086 in fiscal year 2013. While wages dropped, overtime expenses nearly tripled, going from $70,992 in 2013 to $209,561.70 in 2021, budget data reveals.

Employee Pay - O.B. Curtis PlantSalariesOvertime
Fiscal year 2021$423,090.97$209,561.70

To help boost numbers, the city council approved significant pay raises for plant operators last fall.

The decision was made, in large part, to make the city more competitive in recruiting and retaining workers.

According to a copy of the measure, starting pay for Level One plant operators went from $26,448.66 to $34,698 annually. On the opposite in, base pay for water plant operations supervisors went from $36,323.38 a year to $47,931.11.

Salaries for Water Plant OperatorsPreviousCurrent
Plant Operator 126,448.66 to 31,746.5634,698 to 41,797.64
Plant Operator 227,661.67 to 33,223.4636,323.42 to 43,776
Senior Plant Operator30,272.58 to 36,405.0639,822.11 to 48,039.06
Maintenance Supervisor34,698.50 to 41,797.6445,753.36 to 55,267.76
Operations Supervisor36,323.38 to 43,776.5647,931.11 to 57,919.92

Even with the increase, the city still has struggled to find staffers. Back on July 7, Omari said the city was bringing in contractors and working with the Rural Water Association to provide temporary assistance at the plants. Jackson also was working on additional agreements to provide operator assistance, Attorney Martin said.

For his part, Foote said if the city needs to raise the pay again, the administration needs to bring a proposal to the council that it could consider. “We raised salaries once, a [few] months back. If what we’re paying isn’t enough, come back to the council and say it isn’t enough,” he said. “There’s no excuse for having an important city service like this that’s at 50 percent staff strength.”

The council was expected to discuss water issues at a Water Billing & Infrastructure Ad Hoc Committee meeting on Tuesday. However, that meeting has been canceled.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and officials with the EPA also could not be reached for comment.

A copy of the EPA demand letter is shown below.

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