Triage costs small compared to overall water plant needs, officials say

Published: Sep. 20, 2022 at 6:57 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The nearly $200,000 in “triage” the state has done to stabilize the city of Jackson’s main water treatment facility doesn’t come close to addressing all of the plant’s needs, according to city and state leaders.

Between August 29 and September 15, the state spent $191,530.82 on emergency repairs at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, as well as another $1,158,297.26 to augment staffing at the facility, according to numbers confirmed by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and the governor’s office.

The amount does not include the roughly $1 million MEMA is paying Hemphill Construction as the state’s response manager for the next 60 days. Nor does it include what the city has previously stated were priority needs for the plant.

Gov. Tate Reeves himself acknowledged that fact at a press conference on September 5.

“There are indeed problems in Jackson that are decades old, on the order of a billion dollars to fix,” Reeves said. “The crisis we intervened to solve is not one of those problems.”

The state took control of O.B. Curtis on August 29, after equipment failures at Curtis left more than 150,000 people without clean drinking water, including tens of thousands of people with little to no water pressure at all. Curtis is Jackson’s main treatment facility, serving approximately 43,000 connections.

State officials described efforts as “triage” to stabilize the facility. Early on, for instance, the state brought in rental pumps to increase water pressure in the system. By September 10, the first of two permanent pumps there had been repaired and was back in operation, the governor announced on his Twitter page.

On September 15, Reeves announced that the city’s state-imposed boil water notice, which had been in place since July 29, could be lifted, in large part, thanks to the repairs made under state tutelage.

However, he said consultants would remain at Curtis to oversee response efforts and to help draw up intermediate and long-term plans for the site.

“It’s very important we set expectations upfront. While we have restored water quality, the system is still imperfect,” Reeves said. “And we are going to address issues throughout the duration of the state’s response.”

To help with the ongoing response, additional staffing was brought in as part of an emergency compact through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including electricians, water operators, maintenance workers, mechanics, and instrument technicians.

City Council President Ashby Foote said that efforts to augment staffing are as important as the repairs themselves.

“The focus of the EPA for the last four or five or six months has not been about cost, so much as it’s been about having qualified persons at the plants,” he said. “And that’s really where we fell short and why we’re behind the eight ball with the EPA because we didn’t have the plant staffed with properly qualified personnel.”

Emails obtained by WLBT showed that in July, the Curtis plant had just two Class A water operators. State and federal statutes require at least one Class A-certified worker to be on staff at all times. EPA officials said the lack of staffing, coupled with a lack of maintenance, has led to many of the plant’s ongoing problems.

As for non-staffing issues, the city estimates immediate needs at Curtis range anywhere from $16 million to $20 million.

In March 2021, Jackson Mayor Chowke Antar Lumumba asked the governor for $47 million for water system improvements following the winter crisis, after days of below-freezing temperatures crippled water production at the Curtis plant. Of that amount, just under $16.2 million was for upgrades at Curtis.

In December 2021, the mayor said the city provided members of the Hinds County legislative delegation with another list of priorities for the embattled treatment facility, a list of projects that totaled nearly $20.6 million.

The city of Jackson outlined needs for the Curtis plant in this document submitted to state...
The city of Jackson outlined needs for the Curtis plant in this document submitted to state lawmakers.(WLBT)

However, even Mayor Lumumba says those costs pale in comparison to a confidential document provided to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“There is a cost estimate with the EPA, in terms of an overall cost. However, the city is under a nondisclosure agreement with respect to that,” Lumumba said at a September 12 press conference. “And so I can’t tell you [about] the larger document... when we can’t get past stage one of being funded.”

It’s unclear what nondisclosure agreement the mayor was referring to. Jackson and the EPA currently have a court order blocking the release of documents related to renegotiations of its separate sewer consent decree.

Another estimate from last summer shows it would take between $50 million and $70 million to bring both its Curtis and J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plant into compliance with a 2021 EPA administrative order.

Meanwhile, costs related to triage at Curtis are expected to rise. The latest incident command report shows at least 10 unmet needs remaining at the plant, including the need to remove a high service pump and its associated motor. The high service pump sends treated water from the plant into the distribution system. Workers previously reported that the pump was operable, but noticed high levels of vibration.

“Jim (Craig, MSDH deputy director) and I have described this many, many times like flying a plane and changing the engine at the same time,” MEMA Executive Director Stephen McCraney said last week. “Every time we make the plant stronger, we found another weak spot.”

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