Judge OKs Fed’s bid to step in and manage Jackson, Mississippi’s struggling water system

Jackson, Miss, — The US Justice Department has won a federal judge’s approval to conduct a rare intervention to repair a precarious water system in Mississippi’s capital city, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Wednesday, months after the system’s partial failure. The department filed a motion to intervene on Tuesday and US District Judge Henry Wingate approved it in Mississippi later that day.

The move authorized the appointment of a third-party manager to oversee improvements to Jackson’s water system. almost collapsed at the end of the summer and continued to struggle,

At a news conference in Washington, Garland said the resolution was necessary to “stabilize conditions as quickly as possible” in Jackson while city, state and federal officials negotiate a court-enforced consent decree.

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“We have to do something immediately,” Garland said. “Water is a problem right now, and we can’t wait until the complaint is resolved.”

Last August, people waited in lines for water to drink, bathe, cook and flush toilets in Mississippi’s capital as potable water shortages forced some businesses to temporarily close. was forced to. That month the nearby Pearl River flooded after a partial failure of the water system, exacerbating long-standing problems at one of Jackson’s two water-treatment plants.

The Justice Department on Tuesday filed a complaint against the city of Jackson on behalf of the US Environmental Protection Agency, alleging that it failed to provide drinking water that complies with the Safe Drinking Water Act. By approving the motion, Wingate stayed that trial for six months.

Garland said the complaint is intended to allow the Justice Department to negotiate a consent decree, which would give a federal court the authority to compel changes to Jackson’s water system.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said in a news release Wednesday that the resolution, which was signed by the city and state health departments, was the culmination of months of collaboration.

Water Crisis Mississippi EPA
EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, right, addresses a roundtable of Jackson-area businessmen, community leaders, residents and educators as Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, left, listens, Nov. 15, 2022, at Jackson State University Jackson, Miss.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

“The agreement is another step in a long process and a collective effort that ensures the Jacksonians will not be forgotten, and that our ultimate goal of creating a sustainable water system will be realized,” Lumumba said. “We hope this collaborative effort to repair, replace and modernize Jackson’s water infrastructure will become a national model for other American cities facing similar issues.”

Lumumba also praised the selection of Ted Hennifin as interim third-party manager of the city’s water billing department, the Jackson Water System and Water Sewer Business Administration. Lumumba said Hennifin, a former public works director in Virginia, has been “instrumental” in offering his expertise to local officials.

The Justice Department proposal lists 13 projects that Henifin will be in charge of implementing. The projects aim to improve the near-term sustainability of the water system, according to a news release. One of the most urgent priorities is the winterization project to make the system less vulnerable. A cold snap in 2021 left thousands without water in Jackson after pipes froze.

Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis
Jackson, Mississippi, residents hand out water bags at the Grove Park Community Center on Sept. 2, 2022.


Garland said the Justice Department’s involvement in the Jackson water crisis is part of the department’s strategy to achieve environmental justice in “overburdened and underserved communities.”

Garland said Wednesday, “The founding purpose of the department was to protect the civil rights of American citizens. One of the reasons I wanted to be attorney general was to work on those problems.” “This is an example of the Department of Justice using all of its resources on civil rights issues.”

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In May, the Justice Department created an environmental justice division, after President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign promised to take up environmental justice issues in an all-government approach. The Justice Department said in July that it was investigating illegal dumping in Black and Latino neighborhoods in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.

Garland said that Jackson’s situation required the Justice Department to respond with “the greatest possible urgency”.

“We realize how dire the situation is,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine not being able to turn on a faucet and have access to safe drinking water.”

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