Electrical Fire at O.B. Curtis Leaves City Without Safe Water For Weekend

Charles Williams at podium
Public Works Director Dr. Charles Williams expects the final pump replacement for the Jackson Maddox Well system to arrive this week, after weeks of low water pressure for 2,000 residents in south Jackson and Byram. Photo by Nick Judin.

Jackson residents are without clean water yet again, as an early-morning electrical fire at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant forced the plant to shut down, depressurizing the city’s transmission system just ahead of the weekend. 

Just before 9 a.m., the City of Jackson issued a boil-water notice for all surface connections, citing “an electrical issue which caused a small fire in one of the major plant components.” Notably, the boil-water notice mentioned that “(O.B. Curtis) has been experiencing issues with the power feed to the plant.” 

Ridgeland and Jackson Fire Departments arrived to put out the blaze, after the plant shut down to isolate the flames and protect the rest of the equipment.

Shortly after noon, technicians at the plant successfully isolated the electrical issue that generated the fire, allowing O.B. Curtis to again pump water into the city’s transmission lines, avoiding the long outage during February’s winter storms that caused a month of countless water main breaks.

“All electricity and water production have been fully restored,” Jackson Communications Director Michelle Atoa wrote in an afternoon statement. “Residents should start seeing an improvement in their water pressure by this evening and into the night.”

While water pressure is beginning to return to many homes and businesses in the Jackson area, all surface water connections in the city remain subject to a boil-water notice through the weekend. The outage at O.B. Curtis decreased pressure in the system below the minimum safe rate of 65 PSI. Now, the Department of Public Works personnel must increase water pressure until they can take samples and test them for safety, which could take into next week.

A Fire Before Dawn

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba and Public Works Director Dr.  Charles Williams held a press event at City Hall today to brief the public on the crisis and the City’s next steps.

 “At 3:30 (a.m.) the lead operator at the time noticed a noise in the lower operations room,” Williams said. Upon checking the room, that operator discovered an electrical fire that prompted him to call for assistance from the fire department. By 5 a.m. firefighters had extinguished the burning control panel.

Overhead view of OB Curtis Water Plant
An investigation into the causes of the fire is still ongoing, but the fire started in a control panel in O.B. Curtis’ lower operations room. Photo courtesy City of Jackson

“We then solicited a local electrical contractor to come in and do an evaluation to see if we can get those particular pumps isolated,” the public works director continued. “They were able to get that isolation done. But as a result of this, we started losing system pressure.”

Entergy arrived onsite to restore power to the plant by 8 a.m. That process succeeded at 11:15 a.m., and by noon, water was re-entering the system through O.B. Curtis. Williams estimated a “good recovery” overnight, meaning sample testing to lift the boil-water notice could begin as early as tomorrow or as late as Monday. 

Regardless, Jackson residents on surface water connections should continue to boil any water they intend to consume over the weekend.

Water Plant Understaffing “Always Been An Issue”

Lumumba reiterated his calls for the financial support necessary for a major overhaul of the city’s water system, saying that incidents like the fire were the inevitable consequence of an underfunded system. “I have indicated that I believe we are still under a state of emergency,” he said. “When we have aged systems, it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when we will experience the breakdown of our systems.”

Jackson’s crumbling water system drew national attention just last month, as weeks of outages turned into a full month without safe drinking water. City leadership asked the state for assistance then, with the Legislature still in session. 

The ask was $47 million for repairs across the city’s transmission lines and water treatment plants. After weeks of deliberation, the Legislature came back with a much reduced offer: $3 million and the filing of a bill to help the city address outstanding water bill debt. 

Williams explained that the plant would conduct a full investigation into the fire to determine what happened and how it could be prevented. Neither Lumumba nor Williams would speculate on the precise causes of the electrical fire, but Williams did acknowledge that that plant is currently missing staff whose responsibilities include routine electrical maintenance.

Mayor Lumumba and Charles Williams at podium
Public Works Director Dr. Charles Williams acknowledged to the Mississippi Free Press that O.B. Curtis currently lacks employees who would’ve performed some of the plant’s routine electrical maintenance, but also credited active personnel for catching the fire quickly. Photo by Nick Judin.

“Overall, yes—I think that has always been an issue,” Williams told the Mississippi Free Press. “I think we’ve been very out front about personnel issues at our plants.” 

But, Williams added, the right personnel was in place to quickly react to a fire that could have spread much further. “This is a result of having personnel in place to find it very quickly (and) get this fire under control without any further damage to the plant,” he said.

Williams cautioned that the message in the boil-water notice about prior power issues at O.B. Curtis is not necessarily related to the fire. “If you recall, about two weeks ago, we had a power outage at the plant. So I think it would be prudent for us to acknowledge that that did occur,” he said, but added that “(the fire) is not necessarily related to another issue that happened in the past.”

As of now, the simple explanation for what shut down O.B. Curtis is all the public has to work with. “The bottom line is that we had an electrical fire occur in the control panel that controls our high service pumps, which provides water to the system,” Williams said. “There are some additional electrical issues at the plant that we (may) have missed. It could also be a result of the winter storm that just has not showed up yet. We will look at that—all of it. The plant is in a full evaluation period right now.”

It’s All Connected

O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant has been at the heart of most of Jackson’s critical water challenges in the past year. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a final order detailing enormous maintenance and compliance failures at both J.H. Fewell and O.B. Curtis.

In February, the entire system collapsed under the weight of two winter storms, but it was frozen intake screens at O.B. Curtis that kickstarted the entire Jackson water crisis. Now, a burned-out control panel at the same plant will leave the city without clean water for at least a weekend.

Williams strongly reiterated that the problems with O.B. Curtis—staffing, maintenance and necessary improvements—cannot be disentangled from the greater problems facing the system as a whole.

“It is a collaboration between the plant itself and the distribution system. That’s where we’ve seen failures in the past—having a large number of water main breaks within the distribution system. We can’t isolate one from the other. They’re all connected,” Williams said.

Still, he acknowledged to the Mississippi Free Press that O.B. Curtis was the source of many key issues facing Jackson’s clean drinking water supply. Tackling the troubled plant and the City’s aging distribution system together is Williams’ solution, but that will require the Biden administration to make good on its promises to refund the nation’s ailing infrastructure.

“We have a good idea of what is needed at the plant, and also in the distribution system. Right now we need the implementation part of it: financial resources will allow us to do the implementation,” Williams finished. 

Read Nick Judin’s full series of reporting on the Jackson water crisis and historic causes. Watch reporter Nick Judin and editor Donna Ladd interview Mayor Chokwe Lumumba on Jackson water and infrastructure on MFP Live. 

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