Class action suit filed against city of Jackson, others, for ‘ruination of the public water system’

This is an aerial view of of the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Plant in Ridgeland,...
This is an aerial view of of the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Plant in Ridgeland, Miss., Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.(Steve Helber | AP)
Published: Sep. 19, 2022 at 5:22 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson is facing yet another legal challenge over its water system, with attorneys filing a class action suit in federal court.

On Monday, attorneys announced they filed the complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

It targets current and former mayors, former public works directors, and two contracting firms in what they argue is the “ruination of the public water system in Jackson.”

It comes weeks after the city’s water crisis began and just days after the state said it had restored drinking water to residents.

Legal challenges against Jackson continue to mount, with the city facing another lawsuit from attorneys representing about 1,800 children impacted by contaminated water initially filed nearly a year ago.

“All families are entitled to clean and safe drinking water,” said Mark Chalos, a partner with Lieff Cabraser, one of the law firms behind the complaint. “Government officials turning a blind eye to contaminated water and letting a major American city’s infrastructure crumble into disrepair is neither representing nor caring for its people.”

Defendants included are current Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, former Mayor Tony Yarber, and public works directors Robert Miller, Jerriot Smash, and Kishia Powell. The suit also names Siemens Corporation, Siemens Industry LLC, and Trilogy Engineering Services, LLC.

The suit claims that neglect on the part of those parties led to the “environmental catastrophe” that was Jackson’s recent water crisis. However, the suit alleges that even before that failure, “Jackson’s water supply was not fit for human consumption due to the high levels of lead and other contaminants.”

“Jackson is liable because, through its policymakers, it violated the constitutional rights of plaintiffs, including but not limited to their rights to bodily integrity and to be free from state-created danger,” the suit states.

Among defendants, the suit takes to task Lumumba for “deliberately indifferent deprivation of plaintiffs’ constitutional and civil rights,” while Yarber is said to have “intentionally made decisions about Jackson’s water source that created the current public health crisis.”

Meanwhile, Trilogy is alleged to have made Jackson’s water situation worse, designing a soda ash system for a water plant that was never equipped to use it.

Trilogy was brought on in April 2016 to draw up a corrosion control plan to address the corrosiveness of water coming out of the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. That plan included retrofitting the plant’s lime system to feed soda ash.

Hemphill Construction, the same firm the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency brought on to manage the state’s recovery efforts at the plant this month, was hired to install the soda ash system.

However, the suit claims the retrofit never worked, with Lumumba saying years ago that the “retrofitted system is not an adequate solution to the process, because we are dealing with a machine that was not intended for the use of soda ash, there has been trouble in terms of soda ash clumping as it leads into the distribution system,” the suit states.

That same clumping issue was likely behind the city switching over to a lime slurry this year. That switch, according to the mayor, led to an increase in water sample turbidity, and a state-imposed boil water notice.

Turbidity is the cloudiness of the water. The higher the cloudiness, the more likely treatment efforts are unsuccessful in killing disease-causing bacteria, according to health department data.

MSDH issued a notice for all surface-water connections on July 29. It was finally lifted on September 15, more than two weeks after the state took control of the Curtis plant. As part of the state’s work there, a liquid soda ash feed was established.

The suit goes on to claim that the soda ash system designed by Trilogy should have never been installed, arguing that the plant was already reporting clogging in the plant’s existing lime system.

Curtis had a liquid-lime feeding system, which had been malfunctioning for years due to a clogged valve. The problem was complicated by the fact that Jackson was sometimes using solid lime powder in the system, rather than liquid lime.

The suit alleges Trilogy knew of this, but still recommended switching to soda ash. “At that time, there were reports that public officials suspected that there were technical issues with a pump at the Curtis WTP that ‘automatically delivers lime feed,’ which was ‘used to balance the acidity and alkalinity of the water,’” the suit states. “Trilogy nevertheless recommended a switch.”

Trilogy isn’t the only private firm mentioned in the suit. Attorneys also are suing Siemens Industry LLC and Siemens Corporation, the companies the suit says were behind the failed billing upgrades that depleted the city’s water/sewer revenues.

Siemens was hired about a decade ago to replace all of the city’s residential and commercial water meters, create a new billing system at the Water Sewer Business Administration office, and install a network of transmitters and repeaters that would allow meters to communicate with the office.

“The work performed by the Siemens defendants severely impaired the city of Jackson’s ability to charge for water services, resulting in nearly $175 million in lost revenue,” the suit states. “As a result of problems with the PWS caused by the Siemens Defendants, and lack of revenue from it, the City of Jackson did not have the attention or resources to repair and maintain the PWS or address known problems with equipment, infrastructure, and staffing.”

The Lumumba administration sued Siemens and eventually settled out of court for the cost of the contract.

However, attorneys say that after “attorneys’ fees and loan payments/reserves, the amount was not sufficient to rectify the damage the Siemens defendants caused to the [public water system].”

Four plaintiffs are named, including some who are exhibiting symptoms of lead poisoning and others who have lost business or revenue as a result of the city’s lack of water.

Attorneys are seeking a declaratory judgment, including relief to “remediate the harm caused by lack of access to safe water.”

It also is seeking cancellation of all bills for the delivery of unsafe water or water that was not delivered, the establishment of health centers for individuals suffering health problems related to contaminated water, and the appointment of a “neutral monitor” to oversee Jackson’s public water system for a time determined by the court.

They also are seeking to “suspend all efforts to privatize Jackson’s PWS, or components of it, until this case is resolved and the PWS is operating properly and safely.”

We reached out to Trilogy after business hours, but no one was available for comment. WLBT also was not able to leave a message.

Jackson city officials would not comment, citing pending litigation.

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