Justice Department to appoint third-party manager to handle Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis

JACKSON, Miss. — The U.S. Department of Justice filed a proposal in federal court Tuesday that would appoint an interim third-party manager to stabilize the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi.

The third-party manager has not yet been identified and the City of Jackson has not responded to requests for comment at this time, noting the city was focused on the possibility of dangerous storms.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves commented on the announcement, saying, "It is excellent news for anyone who cares about the people of Jackson that [Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba] will no longer be overseeing the city’s water system. It is now out of the city’s control, and will be overseen by a federal court."

The governor, who has not made any efforts to hide his disdain for the leadership in Jackson during the water crisis, took credit for helping the city out of the worst of the problems in August. Jackson's water crisis left most homes and businesses in the city in a boil-water notice for 45 days from late July until early September.

"It has been a chaotic series of months, while the state has assumed their responsibility. The people on the ground who rushed to help were floored by the negligence," Reeves said. "They did heroic work to fix so many broken things and support the frontline city workers who had been abandoned. We committed millions of dollars from taxpayers across Mississippi to solve this crisis of incompetence."

On Nov. 17, Jackson’s City Council approved an order for agreement with the federal government on how to fix the city’s beleaguered water system.

"The state of emergency came to an end last week, but I have authorized MEMA to commit another $240,000 from the state’s Disaster Mitigation Fund for maintenance as a bridge between today and the new leadership," Reeves said. "That should help close out this chapter without further chaos."

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According to a statement from the Department of Justice, the city and the Mississippi State Department of Health have signed this order and agreed to its terms. At the same time, the Justice Department, on behalf of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, filed a complaint against the city alleging that the city has failed to provide drinking water that is reliably compliant with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to the system’s customers.

The proposal, which was called a “proposed stipulated order” in court filings, is meant to serve as an interim measure while the United States, the city, and MSDH attempt to negotiate a judicially enforceable consent decree to achieve long-term sustainability of the system and the city’s compliance with the SDWA and other relevant laws.

“Today the Justice Department is taking action in federal court to address long-standing failures in the city of Jackson’s public drinking water system,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in the statement. “The Department of Justice takes seriously its responsibility to keep the American people safe and to protect their civil rights. Together with our partners at EPA, we will continue to seek justice for the residents of Jackson, Mississippi. And we will continue to prioritize cases in the communities most burdened by environmental harm.”

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The proposal seeks the court’s appointment of an interim third-party manager that would have the authority to, among other things:

  • Operate and maintain the city’s public drinking water system in compliance with SDWA, the Mississippi Safe Drinking Water Act, and related regulations.

  • Take charge of the Water Sewer Business Administration, the arm of the city responsible for billing water users.

  • Implement capital improvements to the city’s public drinking water system, in particular, a set of priority projects meant to improve the system’s near-term stability, including a winterization project meant to make the system less vulnerable to winter storms.

  • Correct conditions within the city’s public drinking water system that present, or may present, an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of the city’s residents.

Jackson is set to receive $71.3 million to upgrade its water system with funds from the American Rescue Plan and a state dollar-for-dollar match program. Lumumba has said in the past that it could cost as much as $1 billion to fix the water system, though that number has reduced in recent days. State leaders say the system needs far less.

The EPA announced Oct. 20 that it had started a civil rights investigation into whether Mississippi state agencies discriminated against Jackson by refusing to fund improvements for its failing water system.

President Joe Biden approved a federal emergency declaration on Aug 30. Volunteers and the National Guard distributed millions of bottles of drinking water.

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: DOJ appoints third party to manage Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis