EXCLUSIVE: Emails reveal staffing shortage threatened to shut down water treatment plants

Published: Aug. 18, 2022 at 5:43 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - If one email best encapsulates the staffing crisis at Jackson’s water treatment plants, it’s one from Mary Carter back in May.

At the time, the city’s chief water official said she could no longer fulfill her duties as deputy director of water operations while having to fill in as an operator at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.

“At this point, I am just worn down,” she wrote to Public Works Director Marlin King. “I hope that somehow you understand.”

Carter’s email is one of dozens of documents the city recently submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency in regard to staffing issues at its plants.

EPA requested the information in late June, amid yet another Jackson water crisis.

The documents paint a stark picture, showing that the Curtis plant, which provides water to some 43,000 connections, has just two Class A-certified water operators on the payroll, one-sixth the number it needs to be fully staffed.

A November 2021 email from then-City Engineer Charles Williams said that the shortages were so bad that if one more water operator left, the city would have to shut down one of its plants.

Meanwhile, timesheets for June 2022 show that water operators at the J.H. Fewell plant logged hundreds of hours of overtime to ensure a Class A operator was on duty at all times, a requirement under federal law.

Jackson must have a Class A-certified worker on duty at each plant 24 hours a day, seven days a week, per the Safe Drinking Water Act. These workers are mandated for all “systems with surface water treatment, lime softening or coagulation and filtration for the removal of constituents other than iron or manganese,” according to operator regulations provided by the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office.

Emails reveal that for about six months in 2021, Carter herself also put in massive amounts of overtime to ensure plant coverage.

“I worked 24 to 36 hours at OBC every Saturday and Sunday,” she wrote. “I don’t want us in the news for a notice of violation from USEPA for not having a Class A operator on site at all times.”

Carter said employees are worn out by putting in the extra hours but are “dedicated to their jobs.”

“They want to make sure that they’re putting out good water for our citizens, you know because they live here,” she said. “These are their relatives, so, they want to do all they can to make sure that the city delivers clean drinking water.”

Carter’s correspondence also reveals another, more troubling fact. Carter asked Public Works Director Marlin King multiple times for a “water/sewer loader,” a document that includes information on all positions currently filled, open and frozen.

She said she needed the information so she could “devise a plan” to bring on a part-time water operator to provide relief.

More than a month after asking for that document, though, she had still not received it, and as of August 18, no worker has been hired.

“Never has a PW director forbade a deputy director from receiving an employee loader,” she told King. “It appears you don’t understand the urgency of this situation.”

Ward 7 Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay first read the email when she was provided a copy by 3 On Your Side. “I’m about to cry,” she said. “I mean, that is unbelievable.”

We also shared the email with King, who said he instructed Carter to get in touch with LaSaundra Johnson, one of the department’s training coordinators, who would handle the hiring.

King said he moved personnel responsibilities under the training coordinator to ensure that no employees were given preferential treatment.

“I think traditionally, a lot of managers have worked off the loaders. And, as I’ve worked through the department and met with other divisions, a lot of their concern was that people sometimes got preferential treatment in terms of raises,” he said. “And so, we wanted an independent body, like LaSaundra, to work with every division to make sure that as we get salary adjustments that everybody in those divisions are accounted for.”

Carter says that as a deputy director, she should be privy to employee loaders and that she already could have had the part-time worker in place had she been given the information. “Since he has taken over as director, he doesn’t want the deputies to look at loaders or anything. And so it makes it hard to even figure out what’s available,” she said. “Ms. Johnson is supposed to be the training coordinator, but the only thing she did was get in contact with personnel, and personnel told her [the position] wasn’t available.”

June timesheets show that Fewell has six water operators, five of whom are certified Class A. Curtis has 10 operators, but only two with active Class A certifications. Two others workers at Curtis previously had the certifications, but let them lapse.

Carter said those two operators are working to get their certifications renewed. “Because they had been out so long, they lost their license. Now they’re working to get their license back,” she said. “Whenever they take their test and pass, then we will have at least two [more] at O.B. Curtis.”

Ideally, the city could have at least 12 certified operators on the payroll at both plants. The positions are needed to ensure 24-hour-a-day coverage and to ensure there is enough personnel to fill in when workers take vacation days or call in sick.

Now, though, employees are having to work hundreds of hours of overtime to ensure full coverage. Between June 1 and July 25, three employees put in more than 200 hours of overtime, while four others logged more than 100 extra hours on the clock, according to timesheets.

One worker, James Jackson, worked 295.53 hours overtime, or an additional 36.9 hours a week on top of his normal 40-hour schedule.

On June 15 and 16, an operator at the Curtis plant, Vincent Thomas Jr., worked more than 22 hours straight before taking 12 hours off and returning for another 12-hour shift.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to attract [workers] to the city of Jackson,” Lindsay said. “That’s abusive. And I regret that I did not know that.”

Even with the overtime, a 3 On Your Side analysis of timesheets sent to the EPA -- plotted like events on a calendar -- show that in June, there were approximately 153 hours where no Class A operator was on duty at Curtis.

King said gaps in coverage were likely filled by Carter, who is not required to clock in. “So, yeah, that’s not a situation where you can just look at timesheets, because again, she does not have to clock in.”

We asked if the EPA would get the impression that the plant was not staffed during those hours. King said that is something that could be easily explained if the city was questioned.

Carter, who told King just weeks earlier that she was worn down, said she likely did not work all those hours. “Maybe not all of those times,” she said.

King later backtracked on claims a Class A worker was on duty at those times. “I would like to think so. But going back to that time, I can’t speak to it. I know at that time, our focus was, ‘we were under a boil water notice. We were trying to get it lifted,’” he said. “I just can’t speak to what was happening there other than day-to-day. It was ‘what do we need to do so we can get that boil water notice lifted?’”

PART TWO: Records leaked to 3OYS show pattern of federal noncompliance with Jackson water plants

Staffing has been a problem at the city’s treatment plants for years, and the city has struggled to address it. At one point, Jackson considered setting up a mobile home at the plant to ensure a Class A worker was on the site 24/7.

In November, the city council approved across-the-board pay raises for operators, with the lowest-paid operator receiving at least $8,000 more annually.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the city has made no secret of its staffing problems, alluding to the issue at a press conference on August 1.

That press conference came just days after the Mississippi State Department of Health issued a boil water notice for all customers on the surface water system.

“We have said that our plant is in a fragile state, and we have recognized our staffing challenges within this plant,” Lumumba said. “The staffing challenges become more pronounced when you have a plant that is as aged and has the challenges that ours has.”

Curtis, which is located in Ridgeland next to the Barnett Reservoir, was constructed in the late 1980s or early 1990s and was expanded in 1997. Today, it has the capacity to treat about 50 million gallons of water daily.

In recent years, the plant has been plagued with challenges. In February 2021, plant operations were crippled after two winter storms ripped across the region, bringing in days of below-freezing temperatures. As a result, thousands of customers were without water for weeks.

Incidents at O.B. Curtis plant since February 2021 winter storm
April 2021Electrical panel fire
September 2021Bad batch of aluminum chlorohydrate
November 2021Treatment chemical explosion
April 2022Line break causing flooding in polymer room
June 2022Ammonia leak
July 2022Turbidity violation
OngoingWater production problems and low volume in elevated storage tanks
OngoingFailure of treatment components due to lack of maintenance
OngoingHigh turbidity numbers

After that, in April 2021, the plant was taken offline for a short time after an electrical fire broke out there. This year, on June 21, the city issued a water conservation advisory after additional equipment failures at the plant. That advisory was followed by a boil water notice on June 24.

Amid that crisis, on June 30, EPA sent a demand letter to Jackson seeking all communications on staffing, staffing shortages, and plans to fill open positions at the plants. The feds also sought information on whether any current positions were filled with contractors, whether there were any unpaid invoices related to those contracts, and timesheets for hours worked by all employees.

EPA officials outlined the problems at a city council committee meeting on Wednesday. “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 low staffing levels,” said Carol Kemker, director of the agency’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Division for Region 4.

Jackson was required to respond to EPA’s request in seven days, or face daily fines. The city did not fulfill the request until July 22.

Among emails, in November 2021, Charles Williams sent one to the administration informing them that Jackson could be headed for another crisis if it didn’t boost staffing levels.

“We currently have one senior licensed water operator and one part-time licensed operator at our main water treatment plant facility (Curtis)... We have five licensed water operators at J.H. Fewell... Four who are in operations and one who is the maintenance supervisor... We are about to lose one of the four operators to another job paying more money and [offering] a better working schedule,” he wrote. “If we lose any additional operators at either plant, a shutdown is unavoidable. We are in an emergency crisis.”

The email was sent to officials just two days before the council approved pay raises. Council President Ashby Foote said he was unaware of how “perilous” the staffing situation was.

“I wish we, the city council, had been informed of that because we certainly would have been interested in making sure that the operation of the plant was protected and comfortably operating without any threats of losing personnel,” he said. “It’s a shame we weren’t better informed.”

Foote was unsure why staffing numbers hadn’t improved since the raise was implemented, but said the council would do whatever is necessary to fill vacancies.

“Certainly, it begs for more exploration as to why they didn’t hire additional people,” the councilman said. “And I don’t know whether that’s an HR problem or what, but you know, we’ve got serious issues in a number of departments. And this is certainly the most important one right now because we’re really affecting the quality of life of our citizens across the city.”

Salaries for Water Plant OperatorsPreviousCurrent
Plant Operator 1$26,448.66 to $31,745.56$34,698 to $41,797.64
Plant Operator 2$27,661.67 to $33,223.46$36,323.42 to $43,776
Senior Plant Operator$30,272.58 to $36,405.06$39,822.11 to $48,039.06
Maintenance Supervisor$34,698.50 to $41,797.64$45,753.36 to $55,267.76
Operations Supervisor$36,323.38 to $43,776.56$47,931.11 to $57,919.92

Raises aside, the administration’s efforts to fill positions have been equally unsuccessful. On the advice of EPA, Lumumba said the city entered into a mutual aid agreement with the Mississippi Rural Water Association to provide an operations consultant to the city.

However, according to Jackson’s EPA response, “the operations consultant, while licensed, had no experience with the operation of a plant using membrane filtration. Consequently, he was not able to provide any shift relief for the Class A operators at the O.B. Curtis plant.”

Curtis treats water two ways, through conventional and membrane filtration methods. On the conventional side, water is brought in from the reservoir and is allowed to settle in a large basin before it is chemically treated and sent into the distribution system. On the membrane side, raw water is diverted past the conventional basin and pushed through membrane filters as part of the treatment process.

“We were optimistic about five water professionals that were coming from Florida... to help augment some of these challenges. And on the eve of them arriving in Jackson, they sent us a memo, saying, ‘hey, listen. We can’t come, because we have the same staffing... challenges as well.’” Lumumba said.

“That is the type of challenge that we find ourselves in, where we follow the suggestion and recommendation of those that are tasked with the responsibility of oversight, but sometimes they don’t... yield the results that we would like to see.”

The council is now pushing the mayor into bringing on a private firm to manage the plant. At its meeting Tuesday, members passed a resolution urging the mayor to bring on a firm as expediently as possible.

Public Works is also stepping up efforts. King says his department is working to bring in retired and part-time workers to help alleviate shortages currently. He also wants to work with local colleges and high schools to recruit workers.

“I’ve spoken with one of our retirees, who is still very active with us, and she talked about programs we used to do in terms of... getting out to the high schools to meet with a lot of those kids - kids that may not want to go to college, kids that don’t want to join the military, but they don’t necessarily want to take a minimum wage job - to talk about a career in water,” he said. “That’s where we want to focus, that is to build up a pipeline,” King said. “So, right now, we have to do what we need to do in terms of staffing up, but the only way that we can really make this thing sustainable is we have to get more people interested in careers in water.”

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