JACKSON, Miss.—The City of Jackson has approved an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to address the city’s ongoing water crisis, providing a legal framework to address its violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act and stabilize its water system after two consecutive years of ongoing disruptions.
The Jackson City Council approved the “interim stipulated order” on Oct. 17 in an executive session, shortly after a roundtable discussion involving EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, an a number of city stakeholders at Jackson State University.
“We all have a desire to reach a judicially enforceable agreement, approved by and overseen by federal court, that ensures a sustainable water system for the long term,” Regan said at the roundtable. “As we rebuild the infrastructure here in Jackson, we’re also trying to rebuild the trust that the community has in its government.”
Order Private Until After Thanksgiving
All parties have thus far declined to share critical details of the plan that will compel Jackson moving forward. Now that that City has formally agreed to the order, it is a public document. But City Attorney Catoria Martin explained that the City would need seven business days to “scrub the document” of “confidential watermarks.” The Mississippi Free Press has requested a copy of the order in full.
Of particular concern is the possibility for new management over the capital city’s water system. EPA leadership up to and including Regan have expressed a desire for Jackson to maintain ultimate sovereignty over its water system, but some form of temporary, external management is a near-certainty.
The shape and dimensions of that third-party leadership must wait for the document’s full release. Regan explained that, following the City Council approval of the plan, the U.S. Department of Justice will send the order to a federal court to finalize it.
At a press event after the roundtable, Regan was cautious not to share the details of the order prior to its public release, demurring when the Mississippi Free Press asked him if hiring and staffing requirements would be a part of the agreement.
But the order would be broad-reaching, he explained. “We’re seeking a comprehensive solution that covers every aspect imaginable, that would allow for us to emerge with a plan that will put us on the path for a sustainable water system for the people of Jackson.”
Regan’s own team has been harshly critical of Jackson’s hiring practices. Carol Kemker, the director of the EPA’s Region 4 Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Division, who also attended the JSU roundtable, told the Mississippi Free Press only days before the late August collapse of water production at O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant that the EPA had seen no evidence of serious efforts to recruit Class A Water Operators or regular maintenance staff needed at the plant.
Currently, the City of Jackson is seeking an extension to the governor’s state of emergency, set to end next Monday. The administratioon is currently supporting operations at O.B. Curtis with the assistance of contract employees scheduled to remain in Jackson into next year.
At the press event, Lumumba told the media that he’d asked Gov. Tate Reeves to extend the state of emergency. “I would say that it would be optimal if we had an extension. I’ve asked for extension. But we have contingency plans in place. We’ll do what we have to do to protect our residents,” he said.
NAACP, Public Responds
Much of the public discourse at the roundtable centered on trust. For many residents, attendees explained, legal assurances may not be enough to restore confidence in the safety of Jackson’s municipal water supply.
State Rep. Bo Brown, D-Jackson, asked Jackson and EPA leadership what could be done to rebuild trust. “Is there anything on tap about trying to instill more confidence and more hope in our citizens so they can go back to drinking our water?” he asked.
Regan responded that, while “actions speak louder than words,” community engagement would be vital to rebuilding confidence in the water system even after the material problems are solved.
The roundtable event saw limited participation from statewide leadership. But a representative from the office of Sen. Roger Wicker was present. Regan highlighted Wicker’s role in providing some federal funds to the Jackson water crisis.
“We appreciate (Wicker) standing with the president and voting for the bipartisan infrastructure law so that we have these resources that can flow to our community,” Regan said. Lumumba echoed his compliments, adding that Wicker has remained responsive to his inquiries. “ I can personally attest that Senator Wicker has been available to me whenever I have a question or whenever there is a request. I want to say publicly I am appreciative of that.”
NAACP President Derrick Johnson was present at the roundtable, and spoke with the Mississippi Free Press after the event ended. Johnson’s NAACP has filed a Title VI complaint against the State of Mississippi and multiple state agencies for alleged failures in funding and oversight of Jackson’s water system.
Johnson had a positive impression of the evening’s discussion, calling it a step forward for the city. But the complaint against the state will continue, he clarified.
“Today’s conversation is the first conversation where I heard solutions. I’m glad that the mayor and the administrator are sitting down. They’re looking forward. The residents of Jackson deserve safe drinking water, and we’re excited about this step,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t take away from the historical problem that the city of Jackson had as it relates to clean water allocation from the state using federal dollars. So our complaint stands.”