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Jackson Mayor, Health Department Clash Over Drinking Water Safety

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba maintains that Jackson’s water is currently safe to drink, but acknowledged that the winterization process may cause boil-water notices for a long time to come. Photo by Nick Judin

JACKSON, Miss.—Capital-city residents could be dealing with rolling precautionary boil-water notices for up to another year, as the winterization process at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant continues. But Jackson’s mayor and an expert consultant from Cornerstone Engineering remain adamant that the water remains entirely safe to drink, even as the Mississippi State Department of Health disagrees.

In an afternoon press conference today, Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba acknowledged that the ongoing boil-water notices from the Mississippi State Department of Health were likely to continue, as the City has returned to using lime slurry to treat its water. But if the City of Jackson and MSDH can come to an agreement that modifies where the water is tested, Lumumba added, the winterization may continue without consistent boil-water notices.

“The soda ash tank (previously used to treat water) was removed because the humidity of Mississippi was leading to clumping in the distribution system. (With) this structure, along with the weatherization projects set to take place, we’ll be able to eliminate that clumping and have even distribution of soda ash into our system,” Lumumba said. 

“Until that happens, we will continue to use lime slurry as a treating chemical. We believe that is the main culprit in terms of our turbidity rate being high. In our position, and in our contractor’s position, that is not a registered public-health threat.”

In a statement to WLBT 3 this afternoon, MSDH Communications Director Liz Sharlot disputed the mayor’s claims. “This agency does NOT issue boil-water notices if the water is safe to drink,” Sharlot said. “Our goal will always be to protect the public health of our citizens.”

Winterization is already underway at O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, intended to prevent another deep freeze now covering its membrane system. Photo by Nick Judin

Behind the mayor, a massive structure enveloped O.B. Curtis’ membrane treatment facility, covering the formerly open-air system. The winterized cover is an attempt to prevent a repeat of the worst days of Jackson’s ongoing water crisis. In early 2021, a freeze struck the plant, causing a month-long period in which many residents across the city had no water at all.

Despite the mayor’s conclusion that the water remains safe to drink even during such precautionary boil-water notices, it is unlikely that local restaurants and businesses may ignore MSDH-mandated health precautions. That can result in extensive additional operating costs at a time when the hospitality industry is already suffering.

‘That’s Not A Health Hazard’

Keith Allen, staff water resources engineer at one of the city’s consulting partners in the management of O.B. Curtis, spoke to the press alongside Lumumba to explain the ongoing boil-water notices. 

“The issues that we’ve had, especially last week, were due to lime turbidity. Lime turbidity is simply calcium carbonate,” Allen said. “When you treat (water) with lime, and you get the pH high enough, you’re gonna see the calcium carbonate. The calcium carbonate fools the turbidity meter … that’s what happened to us last week.”

“Lime turbidity does not cause any health hazard. It doesn’t interfere with disinfection. So, if it’s strictly lime turbidity, then that’s not really a health hazard issue.”

Regardless of the health risks—or lack thereof—of lime turbidity, the sediment still triggers a boil-water notice. “It is a technical violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. When it occurred we reported it to (MSDH) and took the actions that we had to take under the law,” Allen concluded.

This reporter asked Mayor Lumumba directly if it is the position of the City of Jackson that the water is currently safe to drink? “Absolutely,” Lumumba responded. 

“We’ve had conversations with (MSDH),” he continued, “They’re not necessarily taking the position that they do think this is a public-health threat, but they recognize that they are a regulatory agency, and there’s limitations to even what they can do.”

“Lime turbidity does not cause any health hazards,” Keith Allen of Cornerstone Engineering explained at a City of Jackson press conference on Aug. 8, 2022. “It doesn’t interfere with disinfection. So, if it’s strictly lime turbidity, then that’s not really a health hazard issue.”

To summarize the City’s argument, O.B. Curtis treats the water with either lime slurry or soda ash as part of the cleaning process. Mississippi’s humid summers and cold winters require a winterization process to protect the soda-ash treatment system. Until that process is complete, the City has switched back to a lime slurry process. The consequence of that lime slurry treatment is a greater variation in turbidity, or sediment in the water.

High turbidity, under federal law, mandates the state health department to issue a boil-water notice, as turbidity is a general catch-all sign of potentially unsafe water. This is despite the fact that the City can identify the source of the turbidity spike, and in the words of Allen, “(it’s) not a health hazard.”

Jackson’s solution, Lumumba told the Mississippi Free Press, is to change the location of the testing, putting more distance between the lime-slurry treatment and the turbidity test. Such a change would give the treatment chemicals distance to dissipate, and in the view of city officials, eliminate much of the variance in turbidity, allowing O.B. Curtis to complete its soda ash winterization process without a year of disruptive boil-water notices.

Lumumba told this reporter that he expected the Mississippi State Department of Health to respond to the city’s proposal for a different testing location within a week.

The Mississippi State Department of Health declined to comment to the Mississippi Free Press on the boil-water notices facing the city.

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