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Justice Department files complaint against Jackson over water crisis

WJTV Jackson logo WJTV Jackson 11/29/2022 Kaitlin Howell
Justice Department files complaint against Jackson over water crisis © Provided by WJTV Jackson Justice Department files complaint against Jackson over water crisis

JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – The United States filed a proposal in federal court that, if approved by the court, would appoint an Interim Third Party Manager to handle the City of Jackson’s water crisis.

Jackson leaders and officials with the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) have signed this order and agreed to its terms. At the same time, the Justice Department, on behalf of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), filed a complaint against the city alleging that the city has failed to provide drinking water that is reliably compliant with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to the system's customers. 

Jackson takes on more responsibility to fix water crisis

The proposal is meant to serve as an interim measure while the United States, the city, and MSDH attempt to negotiate a judicially enforceable consent decree to achieve long-term sustainability of the system and the city's compliance with the SDWA and other relevant laws.  

"Today the Justice Department is taking action in federal court to address long-standing failures in the city of Jackson's public drinking water system," said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. "The Department of Justice takes seriously its responsibility to keep the American people safe and to protect their civil rights. Together with our partners at EPA, we will continue to seek justice for the residents of Jackson, Mississippi. And we will continue to prioritize cases in the communities most burdened by environmental harm."

"Over the past year, I've had the privilege to spend time with people on the ground in Jackson – many who've struggled with access to safe and reliable water for years,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. "I pledged that EPA would do everything in its power to ensure the people of Jackson have clean and dependable water, now and into the future. While there is much more work ahead, the Justice Department's action marks a critical moment on the path to securing clean, safe water for Jackson residents. I'm grateful to the Attorney General for his partnership and commitment to this shared vision."

Governor ends Jackson water crisis State of Emergency

The proposal seeks the court's appointment of an Interim Third Party Manager that would have the authority to, among other things:

  • Operate and maintain the city's public drinking water system in compliance with SDWA, the Mississippi Safe Drinking Water Act, and related regulations;
  • Take charge of the Water Sewer Business Administration, the arm of the city responsible for billing water users;
  • Implement capital improvements to the city's public drinking water system, in particular, a set of priority projects meant to improve the system's near-term stability, including a winterization project meant to make the system less vulnerable to winter storms; and
  • Correct conditions within the city's public drinking water system that present, or may present, an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of the city's residents. 

On July 29, MSDH issued a boil-water notice for Jackson's public drinking water system. The next month, the city proclaimed an emergency after excessive rainfall and extreme flooding prevented the system from delivering any water to residents living within the city and in certain areas of nearby Hinds County who rely on the system.

The water pressure was not restored until September 6, and the boil-water notice remained in effect until September 15.

Gov. Tate Reeves (R-Miss.) released the following statement about the decision.

It is excellent news for anyone who cares about the people of Jackson that the Mayor will no longer be overseeing the city's water system. It is now out of the city's control, and will be overseen by a federal court.

It has been a chaotic series of months, while the state has assumed their responsibility. The people on the ground who rushed to help were floored by the negligence. They did heroic work to fix so many broken things and support the frontline city workers who had been abandoned. We committed millions of dollars from taxpayers across Mississippi to solve this crisis of incompetence.

In less than 72 hours after the emergency was declared, water pressure was returned to the city. Days later, the boil water alert was lifted. We distributed millions of dollars in water via the National Guard to ensure people could flush their toilets and drink safe water.

You may remember that the Mayor injected further chaos into the story by undermining the EPA's request for the state to find a maintenance contract for the city. He insisted that he must direct the payments.

Since that stunt and our subsequent decision to set an end date for our running of their system, the federal government accelerated their efforts to put someone competent in charge. Their order was filed and made public today. The system should be out of city politician hands very soon.

The state of emergency came to an end last week, but I have authorized MEMA to commit another $240,000 from the state's Disaster Mitigation Fund for maintenance as a bridge between today and the new leadership. That should help close out this chapter without further chaos.

More work to do, but it is very promising that this problem is now going to be solved outside of the city's backrooms. I'm very proud of what everyone has done to come together and fix a longstanding issue and ensure that chaos and corruption cannot keep the people of Jackson from accessing clean water.

Gov. Tate Reeves (R-Miss.)
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