EXCLUSIVE: Top EPA official mum on enforcement as investigation into Jackson water crisis unfolds

EPA Administrator Michael Regan vows to hold governor accountable if state sidelines federal infrastructure dollars for Jackson
Published: Sep. 15, 2022 at 7:39 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The head of the Environmental Protection Agency said his agents would do their job to ensure the Capital City’s water and sewer systems are compliant with federal law, but stopped short of specifics, likely because of an ongoing investigation that began two weeks ago.

“We have been focused on trying to solve Jackson’s problems, at least with this administration, for over the past year. And we’re going to keep doing that,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said.

The cabinet member, who sat down with WLBT for an exclusive interview last week, also brought the city’s mayor and governor in the same room with reporters for only the second time during this water crisis.

The interview presented an opportunity for residents here to get some much-needed accountability from the one federal agency tasked with making sure our water is safe.

When 3 On Your Side talked with Regan, we hoped to learn more about enforcement efforts from his agency, especially after our own investigations into staffing at Jackson’s main water treatment plant revealed possible violations of federal law.

However, before that interview even began, his communications team told us we couldn’t show him any documents we had uncovered, even materials sent to the EPA by the city that presumably he might have reviewed, like time sheets.

“We found 153 hours where there was no class A operator on staff at O.B. Curtis, almost seven days where nobody was at the controls over a 30-day period. What could happen?” we asked.

“We recognize and know that there are staffing issues with the Curtis plant. We also know that there are challenges recruiting people that have the appropriate certification levels. I won’t comment on ongoing enforcement activities, but I want folks to know that EPA is proactively and productively engaging with the city so the city can be better prepared to have properly trained people and resources to deliver good quality drinking water for the people of Jackson. The people of Jackson deserve that,” Regan said.

“That, on its face, is federal noncompliance, is it not? When you have gaps in coverage like that?” we asked.

“You know, I don’t want to speak to ongoing enforcement activities,” Regan said.

Regan could have been declining to talk about that because those ongoing enforcement activities had already been underway for a week.

As NBC News first confirmed, the EPA sent a team of investigators to Jackson for a multidisciplinary review of the water crisis.

It’s unclear what that would involve, but a similar investigation during Flint, Michigan’s water issues led to criminal indictments against those deemed responsible.

During our interview, Regan mentioned a more cooperative than antagonistic view of working with the city, despite the fact that Jackson has been under a sewer consent decree for a decade… and has yet to fulfill issues relating to the agency’s administrative order issued more than two years ago.

“I’m going to do whatever it takes to get to that point. Congressman Bennie Thompson described it as a parent coming in and spanking a child and then telling that child, he loves them. You know, we want to really embrace the challenges that face us,” Regan said.

“Eventually, parents have to do something more than just encouraging. And again, I’m not trying to ask about ongoing enforcement. The agency seems to have a tremendous amount of patience with the city at this point,” we asked.

“What, you know, what I’d say is, we are going to do our jobs. And we’re going to enforce the law, the Safe Water Drinking Act, and the Clean Water Act, we’re going to ensure that the people of Jackson are taken care of, in addition to any enforcement activities, and any activities or actions that we take, we now actually have resources to bring to bear to solve this problem,” Regan responded.

Whether those resources actually get to Jackson has been a serious concern from city leaders, though.

Many had high hopes that state lawmakers would have appropriated far more than it did to address Jackson’s water system issues, considering the state got billions from the American Rescue Plan and the president’s infrastructure law.

“Could a directed federal appropriation be on the table? This money is coming from Washington, but once it gets to the state, it doesn’t always get to us,” we asked.

“Well, you know, I don’t want to give up on the opportunity that we have before us. And what we identified in today’s meeting was about $43 million right now that the city of Jackson can apply for and access. And so what I asked the city to do was to partner with us and get an application in and what I asked the governor to do was partner with the city and EPA to be sure that the city is competitive for those resources,” he said.

Regan said he got an agreement from both the city and state that they would do just that.

Mississippi is slated to receive $400 million over the next four to five years from the bipartisan infrastructure law, Regan says, and fifty percent of those funds are designated for disadvantaged communities or communities of color.

Regan said, “I’ve sent a letter to every governor across the country. We expect the government has to follow the criteria. If we believe that any governor refuses to give fifty percent of those resources to disadvantaged communities, we’re going to withhold those federal dollars from even coming to the state.”

Since the state has been involved in shoring up the city’s main water treatment plant, we’ve gotten more of a picture of the specific issues O.B. Curtis faces.

This incident action plan – issued last week by MEMA – highlighted major hazards inside the facility, most we’ve never reported before because the city never told us about them: fire extinguishers used as door stops, missing or broken handrails, and in some cases no safety equipment for workers there.

“Are you shocked?” we asked. “Just at the condition of the plant? The shape it’s in now? And how quickly do you think that just issues like these can be turned around?”

“I’m not shocked,” Regan said. “Because, again, we’ve been focused on trying to work with the city of Jackson and rehabilitate this infrastructure for quite some time predating my time as administrator. Unfortunately, we see these types of conditions all across the country. It’s one of the reasons that Congress passed the bipartisan infrastructure law. It’s one of the reasons that you saw Senator Roger Wicker and Congressman Bennie Thompson come together and say, an individual city can’t work its way out of this hole alone. It needs federal help.

“We’re going to hold the city accountable,” he continued. “We’re going to ensure that the city is following the law, is staying within the standards that we have before them. But we’re also going to be sure that the city is positioned to be in receipt of these resources to help rehabilitate and get them out of the situation that they’re in.”

Part of holding the city accountable also includes issuing notices when the city fails to comply with federal law, or orders in extreme cases.

Like the EPA administrative order issued in March of 2020 that Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba didn’t tell the council and the public about until more than a year later.

We asked Regan what he thought about Jacksonians being kept in the dark for months about water issues they have a right to know about.

Regan said, “I can’t comment on what everyone does. But what I do as a leader is try to be as transparent as possible, because I understand that in addition to trying to rebuild the infrastructure in this country, we’re trying to rebuild the trust that we have with our citizenry. And we have to work at that. That’s critical.”

Want more WLBT news in your inbox? Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.