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Home HEALTH EPA prepares plan to help fix Jackson's water system

EPA prepares plan to help fix Jackson’s water system

JACKSON, miss… The federal government wants to work with officials in Mississippi’s capital city to reach a legal settlement that will ensure Jackson can sustain its water system well into the future, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan said Monday.

Federal attorneys also sent a letter to city officials Monday threatening legal action against the city if it doesn’t agree to negotiations related to its water system.

Regan returned to Mississippi’s capital city on Monday to meet with Jackson officials about the city’s troubled water system. In the meeting with Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and Assistant US Attorney General Todd Kim, Regan said the federal government would work with the city to “deliver overdue relief for Jackson residents.”

“The people of Jackson, Mississippi have lacked access to safe, reliable water for decades. After years of neglect, Jackson’s water system finally reached a breaking point this summer, leaving tens of thousands of people without running water for weeks,” Regan said. “These conditions are unacceptable in the United States of America.”

In a Monday letter sent to city officials and obtained by news station WLBT-TV, Kim and attorneys with the DOJ’s Environmental Enforcement Section said they were “prepared to bring an action” against the city under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but hoped the matter could be resolved through an “enforceable agreement.” The letter said that state and local officials had “failed to act to protect the public health.”

Regan said in a separate statement that she wants to work with the city to reach a “court-enforceable agreement” that would avoid a legal dispute. A Justice Department spokesman declined to specify what such a deal might entail. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how the federal government could protect public health in Jackson and address “longstanding environmental justice issues” facing the city, the spokesman told The Associated Press.

In a news release, Lumumba’s office said city officials discussed “federal agency plans to immediately enter into negotiations” with Jackson’s leadership to address the needs of its water system.

Most of Jackson’s 150,000 residents were without running water for several days in late August and early September after heavy rains exacerbated problems at the city’s main treatment plant. The EPA had already issued a notice in January that Jackson’s system violated the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Lumumba said coordination with the federal government represents the best way forward for the city to fix its water system.

“We believe it is imperative that we enter into agreements with a team that is uniquely and sincerely focused on the goal of ensuring safe and reliable drinking water for Jackson residents,” Lumumba said in the news release.

On September 15, the Governor of Mississippi. Tate Reeves and the state health department told people in Jackson that they no longer had to boil their water before drinking it or using it to brush their teeth. But interruptions to the supply of drinking water in parts of the city continued.

Lumumba’s office on Monday announced new boil water advisories affecting roughly 1,000 water connections in the city. A city spokesman said a contractor inadvertently cut a water line. This came after multiple major water leaks the previous weekend. Several areas were placed under a boil water advisory, including the Millsaps College neighborhood home. The university has asked for donations to help build its own water fountain.

The EPA said 300 boil water advisories have been issued in the last two years in the city, most of which came before the most recent drinking water crisis. “Clearly this community has suffered enough,” Regan said.

In early September, Regan came to Jackson to meet with residents and elected officials about water issues. She said the city needs to receive “its fair share” of federal money to fix the system.

An interim funding package Congress will consider this week includes disaster assistance for Jackson, a person familiar with the legislation said Monday.

Before the latest water crisis, Jackson had already been under a boil water advisory since late July due to cloudy water that could make people sick. Testing by the state health department in 2015 found higher than acceptable levels of lead in some water samples.

An independent watchdog for the Environmental Protection Agency said in September that it was hired to investigate Jackson’s troubled water system.

In September, four Jackson residents filed a class action lawsuit in federal district court against the city, Lumumba and his immediate predecessor, three former directors of public works, an engineering firm, and a company that had a contract with the city to replace the water meters. The lawsuit seeks to force Jackson to make specific repairs, including the removal or repair of lead-contaminated pipes and equipment.

Regan said the EPA has a responsibility to protect the health of Jackson residents.

“The people of Jackson, like everyone in this country, deserve access to clean, safe water,” Regan said. “They also deserve more than words: they need action.”

———

Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report. Michael Goldberg is a staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.


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