EPA says lack of staffing, maintenance will continue to cause problems for Jackson water

Published: Aug. 17, 2022 at 7:36 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson’s ongoing water crisis was again at the forefront of a city council committee meeting on Wednesday.

This time, though, the attention turned to staffing and the critical number of workers that currently operate the city’s two water treatment facilities.

When asked initially, Public Works Director Marlin King was unable to provide the number of Class A-certified water operators at the city’s O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, Jackson’s main treatment facility.

The Safe Drinking Water Act requires at least one Class A operator to be on duty at all times during the plant’s operation.

Operators must have a certain amount of education or experience before sitting for the Class A test. Duties for these operators include inspecting treatment facilities and ensuring the collection of all water samples mandated under federal law, according to the state’s Water System Operations Manual.

“It’s alarming to me that our biggest number one issue, that affects the health and welfare of my citizens, which is water, that the public works director does not know how many Class A people [are working] off the top of his head, especially for this type of meeting, knowing the importance and gravity of it,” Ward 6 Councilman Aaron Banks said.

King said he would get the information, and later told the council that Curtis had just two full-time Class A operators, and another one that can fill in as needed. Meanwhile, another two workers are preparing to sit for their certification exams.

The meeting comes amid Jackson’s latest water crisis, which began on July 29, when the Mississippi State Department of Health issued a boil water advisory for all customers served by the city’s surface water plants.

King did not know when the notice would be lifted, saying the city is still sampling water daily and must have two consecutive days of clean samples before it can be.

Officials with the EPA attended the meeting via teleconference.

Carol Kemker, director of the Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Division with EPA Region 4, told the council the lack of staffing at Curtis has likely contributed to the number of incidents that have occurred there since the February 2021 winter water crisis.

Those incidents include the April 2021 electrical panel fire, the September 2021 treatment chemical explosion, the June 2022 ammonia tank leak, and the July 2022 turbidity violation. They also include ongoing problems, like water production issues, low tank levels, and continued turbidity issues.

“A number of these... especially the ongoing problems, the water production problems and the low volume in the elevated storage tanks... We feel that these are symptomatic of the low staffing levels,” Kemker said.

Kemker said additional water outages are likely because of the “lack of ongoing maintenance.”

Jackson entered into an agreed order with EPA in July 2021, in part, to address staffing and equipment concerns at the Curtis Plant. The city received a notice of noncompliance with the order in January 2022.

To help boost staffing numbers, the council is urging the mayor to bring on a private company to manage the plant.

Council President Ashby Foote asked Kemker whether hiring a third party was a good idea.

She said EPA could not tell Jackson leaders how to bring its staffing levels into compliance but said it has been “a viable option in other cities.”

“[Coming into compliance] can be done in multiple ways. It can be through hiring staff directly to work for the city. It can be done through contractors. And it can be done through a combination of contracts and city employees,” she said. “Looking at all the options for the city, and... what fits your economic circumstance is a good exercise and approach to take.”

Committee Chair Vernon Hartley said the meeting was “very informative.”

“One of the things I was really glad of is we had a chance to talk with EPA one-on-one and get all the compliance issues from them, from their perspective,” he said. “We have to be listening to them, and their advice and their direction. We can’t have an adversarial role... We have to work together.”

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