Lumumba welcomes state help to address water plant challenges; says no untreated water made it to customers

Published: Aug. 30, 2022 at 1:51 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson Mayor Chowke Antar Lumumba responded Tuesday to the governor’s claims that untreated water had made it into homes and businesses while also addressing the news that the state was stepping in to tackle problems at its main water treatment facility.

The mayor said the city welcomes the help with “open arms,” and that Jackson will take every available dollar to help address its water crisis.

“We’ve been going it alone for the better part of two years when it comes to Jackson’s water crisis. I have said on multiple occasions it was not a matter of if our system would fail, but a matter of when our system would fail,” he said. “So now, we are finally excited to welcome the state to the table and the valuable resources they bring.”

The meeting comes less than a day after Gov. Tate Reeves said the state was stepping in, after failures at the city’s O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant left tens of thousands of customers without water.

Reeves said the state would assess conditions at the Curtis plant and then split costs to make repairs there. In the meantime, he said the National Guard and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency would come in to help distribute potable and non-potable water to customers.

Lumumba told reporters the city would use its remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds to help pay for the work. Jackson received approximately $42 million in funds from the federal government to help with COVID-19 relief. The city just recently began advertising for bids to advertise for water and sewer improvement projects using its remaining funds.

“Yesterday, I had a productive discussion with the leadership from the department of health and MEMA. We talked about creating an alliance to tackle this challenge together,” he said. “I firmly believe the residents of Jackson are worthy of this support... and worthy of a sustainable, equitable system.”

Also on Monday, MEMA Executive Director Stephen McCraney said his agency would backfill water supplies at the city’s fire stations, which currently serve as water distribution points. However, Chief Willie Owens told the city council at its Tuesday meeting that he and his command staff had not been contacted by the agency.

While thanking the state for its help, the mayor used Tuesday’s press conference to clarify several statements made during the governor’s media briefing.

Monday, Reeves told residents not to drink the water, saying that “in too many cases, it is raw water from the reservoir being pushed through the pipes.”

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Edney reiterated the governor’s statement, saying “the water is not safe to drink, and I would even say it’s not safe to brush your teeth with.”

Curtis brings in water from the Barnett Reservoir and treats it through a conventional basin system and membrane filtration system. It serves about 43,000 connections across the city.

Lumumba said, to his knowledge, no untreated water has made it to customers. “[The city] has not distributed any untreated, raw water, but we do encourage our residents to continue to abide by the boil water notice that has been in effect,” he said.

“As a non-engineer myself, I simply listen to the reports I get from those who are experts in the field,” he said. “We know the threat was the potential of raw water getting into the system, but it was recognized by those who treat the water, and they ceased putting out the water until they could come to a chemical composition... that was actually healthy and could be sent out to residents.”

MSDH issued a boil water notice for all customers on the city’s surface water system on July 29. At the time, the state samples taken at the Curtis plant exceeded state levels for turbidity. Turbidity is the cloudiness of the water. The higher the cloudiness, the more likely the water has disease-causing pathogens.

Since then, the city has yet to have two consecutive days of clean samples, which would allow the notice to be lifted. “We are still under a boil water notice. If had been lifted prior to the events of this week, we would have reissued one to the challenge we have experienced in water pressure,” Lumumba said.

The mayor also offered more details on how the flooding impacted treatment efforts at Curtis. In recent days, the Pearl River rose to more than 7 feet above flood stage. That flood water, according to Lumumba, had a different composition than the water typically brought in from the reservoir.

“That made it more difficult to treat. And so, if they didn’t change the chemical composition of how they were treating it, then we would have left our residents in greater danger and a greater threat,” he said. “That’s why they were unable to push out more water because they were making certain that they were effectively treating the water. That was directly associated with the additional water coming into the plant.”

Those concerns aside, the mayor says he’s looking forward to the state’s assistance and the “myriad of improvements that are sure to come.”

He estimates the city needs at least a billion dollars to address problems with its water distribution system, funds he said the cash-strapped municipality does not have.

“It’s imperative that we keep our eye on the ball. We were here [in February 2021] when we had systemwide failures and the world was watching us. And the world is watching us again,” he said. “We must elevate our voices and say the residents of Jackson are worth a sustainable water system.”

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