Water treatment plant described as functioning but fragile as city prepares to take over from state

Published: Nov. 14, 2022 at 6:13 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Fewer than a third of the people needed to staff Jackson’s main water treatment plant were on duty the day after equipment failures there left tens of thousands of people without water, so says a top health official involved in the state’s response effort.

On Monday, Lester Herrington spoke to the Rotary Club of Jackson, where he discussed the state’s response to the Jackson water crisis.

Herrington is assistant commander of the team overseeing emergency operations at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, the epicenter of the crisis.

He said that on August 30, just five operators or maintenance workers were on duty, far fewer than the number needed to adequately run the facility.

“Typical staffing would be around 16 to 18 people, and the day we arrived, there were five,” he said. “All those folks are heroes in our minds because they were coming to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week for months to make sure that everything kept running.”

The state took over operations of the city’s water system in late August, under emergency declarations handed down by Gov. Tate Reeves and the Mississippi State Department of Health. A federal emergency signed by President Joe Biden followed.

With the state and federal declarations set to expire on November 22 and 29 respectively, Herrington said the city must focus on maintaining the plant, building redundancies and continuing with winterization projects.

“It’s definitely in better shape and a better place than it was a couple of months ago, but it still and will continue to be fragile until that redundancy and resiliency is in place,” he said.

Redundancy, he explained, is having a backup in the case of an equipment failure. “It is when you’ve got one functioning pump, and then you’ve got a shiny, brand-new pump sitting right next to it, that, if this one fails, it’s ready to cut on, and you never know anything happened,” he said.

Herrington said the state worked to build some redundancy at the plant since taking control on August 30 but said more needs to be done.

For its part, the city is already preparing for the state’s exodus. Last week, the council approved an emergency staffing contract with WaterTalent LLC to provide temporary Class A Operators for the Curtis plant. The operators were expected to begin working at the facility Monday.

However, Herrington said the city also needs maintenance workers. “As long as the state declaration exists, there’s a contractor on site who is working as project manager,” he said. “MEMA did contract with a local group that has been providing that maintenance. And I think the city is talks trying to extend that contract beyond the end of the state declaration.”

Jackson is seeking a long-term operations and maintenance contract, but a consultant told the council last week that it could take up to 90 days for an agreement to be hammered out.

Meanwhile, a number of issues remain at both the Curtis and J.H. Fewell plants. At Fewell, five of the high-service pumps, the pumps that are designed to pump water into the distribution system, are defunct, while a sixth pump simply is no longer working. Two of the plant’s five raw water pumps also are down, while a sixth one also is defunct, meaning it cannot be repaired or replaced.

Fewell was constructed in 1914 and upgraded in 1944. Because of this age, in many cases, replacement parts for the equipment there are no longer made. “It is literally an operating museum,” Herrington said. “The good news is, though, that in 1914 and 1944, they way over-engineered and way over-built things, and they were made to last.”

Curtis came online around 1996 and was expanded in 2007 to include a membrane treatment system.

The plant has been had been having problems for months but nearly shut down due to complications from the Pearl River Flood.

In August, torrential storms caused the river to rise more than seven feet above flood stage. The floodwaters, in turn, stirred up debris and changed the chemical makeup in the Barnett Reservoir, the lake that supplies Curtis.

“There was debris that was brought in, and that caused the failure of one of the raw water pumps at J.H. Fewell. It also contributed to the failure of the raw water pumps at O.B. Curtis - the primary one that failed and then its backup,” Herrington said. “And so, they were both offline.”

He said the biggest impact the flood had on Curtis was due to the change of the reservoir’s alkalinity. Typically, water in the 33,000-acre lake has a pH of around 7. However, the additional rain and floodwaters reduced the lake’s pH to around 6.

“That doesn’t sound like a big difference... [But] that’s a big change. And, so that’s when they lost the chemical process. None of the water they were making could be put into the system,” he said. “And that’s when they lost pressure, and that’s when we came in.”

Since stepping in, Herrington said the state has made significant progress, bringing two failed raw water pumps at Curtis back online and restoring one of the two ultraviolet filters that were down. The seven water storage tanks that were down also have been brought back online. The work not only helped restore water pressure but enabled the state to lift a surface water boil notice that had been in place for six weeks.

Even so, some issues at the plant remain. “Unfortunately, none of the CLARI-TRAC systems are working in any of the basins currently,” he said. “That’s something that is part of a project to be replaced and updated, but right now, they’re not operational.”

The CLARI-TRAC system is designed to remove sludge from the bottom of the conventional basins. However, with none of them working, the basins have to be drained and manually cleaned.

“It takes about 24 hours on average, and maybe we can do it a little quicker...,” Herrington said. “The difference when that happens is you’ve lost about six to eight million gallons of water... While that’s down, you don’t need a big line break.”

Herrington said that a recent line break, coupled with the cleaning of a tank, put added stress on the city’s system during the week of the Jackson State University homecoming. The following Monday, the mayor urged people to conserve water prior to the JSU-Southern University matchup.

“You kind of had things almost get into an unfortunate situation, but because we had built enough margin in the tanks, we didn’t lose pressure,” he said. “But again, we’ve made sure now if there’s home games for JSU on the weekend, we’re not draining basins.”

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