Judge expects to place Jackson sewer under control of third-party manager

Published: May. 9, 2023 at 7:11 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A sewer main break along Northside Drive likely is one of several factors prompting a federal judge to place the city’s beleaguered sewer system under control of a third-party.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate said he expects to place the city’s sewer system under the authority of Interim Third-Party Manager Ted Henifin.

Henifin, who was appointed receiver over Jackson’s water system and water billing system last November, has done a “herculean job” addressing Jackson’s water needs, according to the judge.

And, citing potential health concerns brought about by numerous sanitary sewer overflows dotting Jackson’s landscape, Wingate said something needs to be done fast.

“Every day that goes by we run the risk of escalating our problem,” he said.

Wingate ordered attorneys representing all parties in the case to hammer out an order to combine the city’s sewer consent decree with its stipulated order over water, so sewer could be placed under Henifin’s control.

The judge said he wants a draft order in two weeks, saying Jackson residents can’t afford to wait any longer for solutions to the ongoing health problem.

“To say we’re going to allow this to fester for months means we’re not being as forthright as we could be,” he said. “You are experts at this point. You did the water thing. Since you have that as your guidepost, I don’t see how difficult it [will be] to craft something to get us moving on this matter.”

Wingate approved an interim stipulated order placing the water system under federal receivership in November.

The order also included appointing Henifin as third-party manager, giving him broad authority to carry out the order’s mandates.

The consent decree, meanwhile, was handed down nearly a decade ago to bring Jackson’s sewer system into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

A status report filed with Wingate last week shows the city has yet to come into compliance with the decree, as evidenced by the more than 250 sanitary sewer overflows that have yet to be addressed.

Those overflows, often called SSOs, occur when wastewater leaves the sewer system and gets into the environment.

The city is fined for each SSO that impacts the Pearl River and its tributaries.

Ted Henifin told a judge on Tuesday that he would likely contract out much of the work done by...
Ted Henifin told a judge on Tuesday that he would likely contract out much of the work done by city staff if he's allowed to take over Jackson's sewer system. (WLBT)

City Attorney Catoria Martin told the judge it would take between one to three years to address those existing overflows with existing funding sources.

“With the money the city has available, we’d... tackle the neighborhoods where the most are reported,” she said. “We [would] start with the Queens area because they have a lot of issues.”

Martin said the city recently submitted a priority project list to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and Environmental Protection Agency for review but has yet to get a response.

“I don’t think anybody disagrees that the sewage system is in trouble. Arguably, the system is worse than it was in 2013,” she said.

Jackson entered into a sewer consent decree, which outlined numerous steps the city had to take to bring its system into compliance.

According to a May 5 status report filed with the court, the city “has achieved only limited progress under the consent decree,” including failing to put in place a sewer overflow response plan.

That plan, according to court filings, would outline how Jackson would respond to SSOs, as well as how they would notify the public of overflows when they occur.

Martin said the city is not in compliance, in part, because of the decree’s overall cost. The decree was initially expected to cost more than $400 million, an amount that has since ballooned to more than double that.

“Since 2013, at no point has the city had $800 million to fund wastewater,” she said. “We tried the best to comply with the resources we had available. We’ve spent money and time to study the collection system and send reports, but [that has] not allowed us to spend money on the collection system.”

She says the city is now seeking a stay on the consent decree to allow the city to focus on a short-term list of projects before again moving forward with other decree requirements.

Wingate told Martin it was “disconcerting” that it would take so long to address the breaks, saying the public should be alarmed.

Henifin said Martin’s estimated time to address the concerns likely was accurate.

“It would take time to address the overflows even with all the money in the world,” he said. “If I had the same concept of relief from procurement laws, we could make rapid progress, but [we would likely] not get to the end of it in one year.”

A sign cautions those passing by about a major sewer main overflow near the corner of McTyere...
A sign cautions those passing by about a major sewer main overflow near the corner of McTyere Avenue and Wilson Street.(WLBT)

Henifin was referring to the broad powers given to him under Wingate’s order.

As an officer of the court, he is not bound by Mississippi state procurement laws. He also does not have to seek council or mayoral approval to enter into contracts on behalf of the city.

In the short-term, Henifin told Wingate he could bring on contractors to clean the lines and make small repairs where possible. At the same time, he would continue to post signs to warn people of where sewer overflows are occurring.

Another problem that needs to be addressed is the number of cases where sewage backs up into residents’ homes.

He said backflow valves need to be installed to help address that issue.

Henifin told Wingate if he is put in charge of the sewer system, he would run it much like he does the water system – by contracting out most of the work.

“It would be very similar, but a not so popular move, to convert to contractors [services now provided by] the city,” he said. “This is an urgent matter. I don’t have time to train staff, buy equipment... This is the best we can do to make this happen fast.”

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