Lawyers representing hundreds of Jackson children have sued the City of Jackson, Trilogy Engineering Services, and dozens of individual employees and public officials over allegations of persistent failures to address corrosion control in the Jackson water system. The lawsuit claims that spiking lead levels over the last decade and inaction on the part of public officials has resulted in lead-poisoned children in the city.
“Individually and in combination,” the lawsuit reads, “these conscience-shocking acts of deliberate indifference … have caused hundreds, if not thousands of Jackson’s children, including Plaintiff, to be poisoned.”
The complaint is an extensive 84-page document that excoriates the City of Jackson, Trilogy, and the Mississippi State Department of Health for “deliberately and knowing breach(ing) the constitutionally protected bodily integrity of Plaintiff by creating and perpetuating the ongoing exposure to contaminated water, with deliberate indifference to the known risks of harm which said exposure would, and did, cause to Plaintiff.”
In addition to the Trilogy Engineering Services, the City of Jackson and MSDH, the suit names Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba; former Mayor Tony Yarber; three former Public Works Directors: Bob Miller, Kishia Powell, and (interim director) Jarriot Smash; MSDH Director of Health Protection Jim Craig, 20 unnamed MSDH employees and 20 unnamed “other” employees.
Attorney Corey Stern, of Levy Konigsberg LLC, lead counsel behind the Flint lead poisoning lawsuits, brought the suit in collaboration with Rogen K. Chhabra and Darryl M. Gibbs out of the Jackson-based firm Chhabra & Gibbs.
‘A Catastrophic Shock’
Specifically, the suit alleges numerous egregious failures of water-system maintenance and public notice over lead exceedances dating back to 2014. Surface water with “dangerously low pH” caused a “catastrophic shock to Jackson’s drinking water system,” causing lead to leach from pipes and fixtures in the city into the drinking water, the complaint claims. The lawsuit represents only one side of a legal dispute.
Jackson public-works officials have repeatedly asserted that the City removed all lead pipes from its distribution system, but lead-pipe removal alone is insufficient to protect residents from lead poisoning. Pipes and fixtures at the point of delivery—in Jackson homes and businesses—may still contain lead. Additionally, lead joints and distribution lines are also susceptible to leaching lead into drinking water without proper corrosion control.
When Jackson switched from well water to surface water in 2014, and during a resulting spike in lead levels, the lawsuit asserts that then-Public Works Director Kishia Powell “downplayed the threat in Jackson,” and that Jackson consistently failed to address these corrosion-control failures.
Furthermore, the lawsuit contains allegations against MSDH—stating that Director of Health Protection Jim Craig failed to properly inform Jackson citizens “of the serious elevated (lead) levels MSDH officials detected in June 2015.”
It also accuses Craig of directing lower level MSDH employees to run faucet water excessively slowly, and to “pre-flush” pipes during testing, “both of which produce artificially low lead testing results, and both of which are in contravention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s clear, pre-existing guidance.”
Forty “other employees” including 20 employees of MSDH are included as unnamed defendants in the lawsuit. The complaint accuses these unnamed workers of a “deliberate effort … to conceal and understate the scope and gravity of the threat of lead poisoning in Jackson’s water.”
The lawsuit further alleges that under the leadership of Mayor Tony Yarber, Jackson hired Trilogy Engineer Services, LLC, run by CEO Thessalonian LeBlanc, who had previously held fundraisers for Yarber, to conduct an expensive water survey that resulted in a recommendation for a soda ash treatment system, rather than liquid lime.
Both soda ash and liquid lime are tools for properly treating the pH balance of water, preventing lead corrosion and contaminating the water supply. But soda ash clumps under high humidity, requiring additional system upgrades to properly treat the water—an additional challenge for a system located in one of the most humid regions of the country.
“Trilogy’s egregious and nonsensical recommendation was followed by (sic) Jackson,” the complaint states.
Justin Vicory, executive writer for the City of Jackson, declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit, telling the Mississippi Free Press on Thursday that an official response from the City’s attorneys was forthcoming, but it has not arrived by press time.
Liz Sharlot, communications director for MSDH, also declined to speak on the issue this morning. “We don’t comment on pending litigation,” Sharlot told the Mississippi Free Press.