Mayor says some ‘higher-ups’ with MSDH don’t think turbidity in water is a public health threat

Published: Aug. 8, 2022 at 5:39 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba on Monday doubled down on his earlier statements that Jackson’s water is safe to drink, saying that even some health department officials believe the latest boil water notice wasn’t needed.

“We’ve had both conversations with Department of Health personnel that are on the ground and the higher-ups. Even among the discussion amongst the higher-ups, you know, they’re not necessarily taking the position that they do think that it’s a public health threat, but they do recognize that they are a regulatory agency, and [there are] limitations to even what they can do,” he said.

On July 29, the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) issued a boil water notice for all surface water connections in the city, citing high levels of turbidity, or cloudiness, in the water. The notice, which was still in place on August 8, affects 43,000 connections.

Lumumba says the high turbidity is due to the lime slurry currently used to sanitize water coming into the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, and that he and state health officials have been in talks about the issue.

MSDH Communications Director Liz Sharlot did not respond to the mayor’s comments but said the boil water alert itself explains the public health concerns with the drinking water.

“This agency does NOT issue boil water notices if the water is safe to drink,” she said. “Our goal will always be to protect the public health of our citizens.”

According to a copy of the notice found on MSDH’s website, customers on surface water connections are being told not to drink the water without bringing it to a boil for at least one minute.

It goes on to state that “turbidity has no health effects. However, turbidity can interfere with disinfection and provide a medium for microbial growth. Turbidity may indicate the presence of disease-causing organisms.”

Those organisms, in turn, include “bacteria, viruses, and parasites, which can cause symptoms, such as nausea, cramps, diarrhea, and associated headaches,” the release states.

Samples taken on July 28 showed turbidity levels of 1.0 to 2.5 units, above the standard of 0.30. It was unclear what samples taken on Monday revealed. The city must report two clean samples on two consecutive days before the boil water notice can be lifted.

Keith Allen, a chemist with Cornerstone Engineering, was brought on to explain how lime causes the problem.

“Lime turbidity is simply calcium carbonate. You buy it in water off the shelf. But when you treat with lime, and you get the pH high enough, you’re going to see the calcium carbonate, and the calcium carbonate fools the [turbimeter]… and it will give you the higher number,” Allen said.

“The lime turbidity does not cause any health hazard. It doesn’t interfere with disinfection. So, if it’s strictly lime turbidity, then that’s not really a health hazard issue. However, it is a technical violation of the State Drinking Water Act. When it occurred, we reported it to the Department of Health, and we took the actions that we had to take under the law.”

The mayor corrected his previous statements saying that the city stopped using soda ash because the soda ash tanks had to be moved to make way for a winterization project at the plant.

Instead, Lumumba explained the city stopped using the chemical because the “Mississippi humidity” was causing it to clump during the treatment process.

“This has been an ongoing conversation with the state and the EPA... that this structure, along with the weatherization projects that [are] set to take place, we’ll be able to eliminate that clumping,” the mayor said.

Jackson is currently building a large enclosure around the Curtis plant’s membrane filtration units. The membrane filters were basically shut down during the 2021 winter weather crisis when two fronts of below-freezing temperatures ripped across the region.

The structure is expected to be completed by October.

Monday’s press conference was held at Curtis, outside where the enclosure is being constructed.

“The weatherization project is one that’s necessary because we have hotter summers, colder winter, and more rain that we experience each and every year,” Lumumba said. “And that is taking a toll on all of our infrastructure.”

“What we wanted to demonstrate today is that your administration, your city, is taking action. In addition to this huge structure that is intended to protect our water system, you’ve also been present at the $8 million investment, give or take, that we’ve made toward [installing] a new pipe that is helping to supply more water to South Jackson, which we know has been disproportionately affected.”

During the 2021 winter crisis, South Jackson and Byram residents on the surface water system were without water for several weeks. Many had to bring in bottled water to drink and cook with, as well as non-potable water to flush toilets and clean up.

In addition to the membrane shelter, the city also is replacing the dehumidifiers with the soda ash system and is wrapping up design work on two projects designed to completely replace filters on the conventional treatment side.

“We have a project, a $1.6 million project in design- 99 percent done - to update, rehab, and fix the intake structure that you on Spillway Road on the dam,” Lee said. “That is where our water intakes. That’s also where chemicals are added to start the treatment process immediately coming out of the reservoir... And that’s been offline. We want to get that back online so we can improve the treatment process before the water even gets to the plant, for a start.”

Curtis treats water in two ways: through the conventional method and through membrane filtration. On the conventional side, water is brought in and allowed to settle in a large basin before it is chemically treated. On the membrane side, water brought in from the Barnett Reservoir is diverted past the traditional basin and pushed through membrane filters.

“These are part and parcel of the ongoing measures that we are trying to do in order to improve our condition of water distribution in the city.”

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