‘We object’: Jackson mayor decries citywide boil water notice issued by MSDH

Lumumba says statewide notices help establish ‘fear in the community.’
Published: Aug. 1, 2022 at 3:12 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said he objects to the latest boil water notice affecting all surface water connections in the capital city.

The mayor held a press conference Monday to discuss the city’s ongoing water crisis, which comes just days after the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) announced a boil water notice for all surface water connections in Jackson Friday.

“We object to the boil water notice. We object because we do not feel that it is consistent with what is taking place. And while we respect members and leadership at the Department of Health, we have had discussions as to what is taking place at our water treatment facility,” he said.

Despite objecting to the notice, the mayor did not say residents should stop boiling their water. He also did not point out that the city issued its own boil water notice on Saturday.

Jackson issues its own boil water notice, despite objecting to the state's.
Jackson issues its own boil water notice, despite objecting to the state's.(WLBT)

The notice was issued due to high levels of turbidity found in samples coming from the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. The higher the turbidity, or cloudiness of the water, the more chance that disease-causing pathogens are present.

The mayor said he was meeting with MSDH officials Monday to discuss the issue and how boil water notices are handled in the future. This is the second state-issued boil water notice issued for the city in the last two months. The previous one also was handed down due to water turbidity.

Lumumba said turbidity is high, in part, due to work being done at the plant. Because of that work, the city is having to use lime slurry to treat the water, causing higher levels of turbidity.

“Back in 2016 or so, the city was required to move away from what we call a lime slurry to a soda ash system,” he said. “The reason that we were required to go from lime slurry... is because it was showing consistent fluctuations and turbidity. We know that when you use lime slurry, it causes those consistent fluctuations.”

The city retrofitted Curtis so it could use soda ash. However, the city had to remove a soda ash tank so it could do weatherization work at the site.

The weatherization work, in turn, is needed to prevent another winter water crisis like the one that occurred in 2021, Lumumba told the media.

“So this is one of those darned if you do, darned if you don’t type of scenarios where we have to remove the tank and go back to the old system of lime slurry,” he said. “We have consistently communicated that with the Department of Health and the EPA. And, so if we continue this round robin we will continue to see these issues - the issues of boil water notices if we don’t recognize what is taking place.”

Lumumba was unsure when the boil water notice would be lifted. However, winterization efforts at the plant are expected to wrap up in October. Once that happens, the city can replace the soda ash tank, he said.

“Hopefully, we can come to an agreement and the water notice does not continue to be a recurring thing. I’m no expert in this field, and so I yield to experts, but there is some level of debate whether when you’re using lime slurry, you actually need to issue those types of notices,” he said. “Those are debates that happen in the field, so I’m not an expert. But hopefully, we can come to an agreement so we don’t keep continuing to establish fear in the community.”

The mayor outlined other problems at the water treatment plant as well, including staffing shortages, and the fact that the plant is in what he says is a “fragile state.”

“The staffing challenges become more pronounced when you have a plant that is as aged and has the challenges that ours had,” he said. “If we had a plant that had the automation and was... new and, you know, a younger plant, then those staffing challenges wouldn’t be as pronounced.”

Lumumba said the city has worked to address those issues, including taking the recommendation of the EPA to enter into an agreement with the Rural Water Association to provide staff augmentation.

[Read also: Did staff shortages lead to Jackson’s latest water crisis? EPA wants to find out.]

“We were eagerly anticipating the arrival of four individuals from Florida that had come from that particular program. On the heels of them showing up to help aid and supplement our staffing challenges, they wrote us back and say that they could not enter into the agreement because they had staffing challenges of their own... That is the type of challenges that we find ourselves in.”

To alleviate the problem, the city is working on a staffing agreement to build numbers at the plant.

As for the fragility of Jackson’s water system, the Curtis plant has had numerous problems in recent years. In February 2021, it was partially shut down by days of below-freezing temperatures. That translated into tens of thousands of customers being without water for weeks. Then, after that problem was addressed, an electrical fire broke out at the plant, temporarily cutting production there.

Lumumba said contractors recently replaced the panel destroyed in the fire, but it was installed incorrectly. As a result, it can only be turned on manually, something else the mayor says MSDH has taken the city to task on.

“These are the types of things, that while we know we have a lot to do, while we know that our plant is in a very fragile state, we have to have the level of communication and cooperation that allows us to work side-by-side in the repairs and the upgrades of our water treatment facility,” he said. “And, so, those are the things that I would start our discussion with.”

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