Federal judge approves stipulated order governing Jackson water

Published: Nov. 30, 2022 at 2:44 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A federal judge has approved a stipulated order that will give control of Jackson’s water system to a third-party program manager.

Tuesday evening, Judge Henry Wingate signed off on the order, which was previously hammered out in closed-door discussions by the U.S. Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency and Jackson city officials.

The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. “For the reasons stated in the memorandum in support of the motion and in the light of the fact that the motion is unopposed... the court grants the unopposed motion,” Wingate wrote.

The city council voted to accept the stipulated order this month, and Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba lauded it in a statement he released Wednesday afternoon.

The order essentially puts the city’s water system and billing system under control of Ted Henifin, an independent third-party program manager, who will be responsible for implementing the stipulated order’s mandates.

Attorney General Merrick Garland spoke on the order at a press conference Wednesday.

“The proposed order is designed to stabilize the city’s public drinking water system while the United States, the city and the [Mississippi] State Department of Health attempt to negotiate a judicially enforceable consent decree to achieve long-term sustainability of the water system,” he said.

Garland told reporters that while the decree is being hammered out, the order is needed to ensure that residents have clean water, and that the city’s system is brought into compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Under terms of the agreement, Jackson will be required to set aside funding for use by the interim manager and his team to operate and maintain the system, as well as make capital improvements. In some situations, the manager also will have the ability to raise water rates without the consent of the city council.

“The first thing we wanted to do [was] get an interim order, get the judge to sign it... so that we can put in an interim manager and stabilize the circumstances,” the Attorney General said. “That’s the purpose of the interim order. The purpose of the complaint is to allow us to negotiate or at least attempt to negotiate a consent decree.”

The stipulated order was filed in federal court on Tuesday, months after pump failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant left tens of thousands of people without running water.

The order also comes as the city is facing multiple lawsuits for lead in the water, with attorneys in those case comparing Jackson to Flint, Michigan.

“It’s hard to imagine not being able to turn on a tap and get safe drinking water,” Garland said. “We have to get something done immediately. The water is a problem right now, and we can’t wait until the complaint is resolved.”

Garland said that resolution will likely come in the form of a consent decree. And even with promises that the federal government will move fast, negotiations could take months, possibly years.

Jackson was in talks with the federal government for about two years before its initial sewer consent decree was finalized in 2012. Jackson entered into that agreement to bring its sewer system into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.

The Lumumba administration’s efforts to renegotiate terms of that decree began in late 2018 or early 2019. However, it was only in December of 2021, when a federal judge agreed to reopen the case to allow formal negotiations between the city and DOJ to begin. Nearly a year later, those talks are still ongoing.

“We realize how horrible the circumstances are there,” Garland said. “We are approaching this with the greatest possible urgency. We believe our partners in this are doing so as well. So, we will bring this to conclusion as soon as we possibly can.”

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