By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS and MICHAEL GOLDBERG
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Justice Department made a rare intervention Tuesday to try to bring improvements in the beleaguered water system in Mississippi’s capital city, which nearly collapsed in late summer and continues to struggle.
The department filed a proposal to appoint a third-party manager for the Jackson water system. That is meant to be an interim step while the federal government, the city of Jackson and the Mississippi State Department of Health try to negotiate a court-enforced consent decree, the department said in a news release. The goal is to achieve long-term sustainability of the system and the city’s compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and other laws.
The city and the state health department have signed the proposal, which needs approval of a federal judge.
The Justice Department on Tuesday also filed a complaint on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency against Jackson, alleging that the city has failed to provide drinking water that is reliably compliant with the Safe Drinking Water Act. According to the agreement, that litigation will be put on hold six months while all parties try to improve the water system.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in the news release that the Justice Department is “taking action in federal court to address long-standing failures in the city of Jackson’s public drinking water system.”
“The Department of Justice takes seriously its responsibility to keep the American people safe and to protect their civil rights,” Garland said. “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.”
In a federal complaint Sept. 27, the NAACP said Mississippi officials “all but assured” a drinking water calamity by depriving Jackson of badly needed funds to upgrade its infrastructure.
The EPA announced in late October that it was investigating whether Mississippi state agencies have discriminated against Jackson by refusing to fund water system improvements in the city of 150,000, where more than 80% of residents are Black and about a quarter of the population lives in poverty.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, said Tuesday that the Jackson water problems were caused by a “crisis of incompetence” in the Democratic-led city.
“It is excellent news for anyone who cares about the people of Jackson that the mayor will no longer be overseeing the city’s water system,” Reeves said.
Like many American cities, Jackson struggles with aging infrastructure with water lines that crack or collapse. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat in the Republican-led state, said the city’s water problems come from decades of deferred maintenance.
Jackson frequently has boil-water notices because of loss of pressure or other problems that can contaminate the water. Some of the mandates are in place for only a few days, while others last weeks. Some only affect specific neighborhoods, usually because of broken pipes in the area. Others affect all customers on the water system.
Edward “Ted” Henifin was appointed Tuesday as interim third-party manager of the Jackson water system and Water Sewer Business Administration, the city’s water billing department. An online profile of Henifin says he is a registered professional engineer who served 15 years as general manager of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District in Virginia. Before that, he served as director of public works for the city of Hampton, Virginia.
The proposal lists 13 projects that Henifin will in charge of implementing. The projects are meant to improve the water system’s near-term stability, according to a news release. Among the most pressing priorities is a winterization project to make the system less vulnerable. A cold snap in 2021 left tens of thousands of people in Jackson without running water after pipes froze.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who has been to Jackson four times in the past year, said the Justice Department’s action “marks a critical moment on the path to securing clean, safe water for Jackson residents,″ adding that he is grateful to Garland for acting quickly on the city’s water crisis.
In May, the Justice Department created an environmental justice division, following up on President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign promise to elevate environmental justice issues in an all-of-government approach. The Justice Department said in July that it was investigating illegal dumping in Black and Latino neighborhoods in Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city.
Jackson has had water problems for decades. Most of the city lost running water for several days after heavy rainfall exacerbated problems at the city’s main water treatment plant in late August. When that happened, Jackson had already been under a boil-water advisory for a month because health inspectors had found cloudy water that could make people ill.
The boil-water advisory was lifted in mid-September, but many people remain skeptical about water quality.
Vangela M. Wade, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, said the Justice Department announcement Tuesday is “an important and necessary move to ensure that residents of Jackson and surrounding communities have access to safe drinking water — a vital necessity for all communities to thrive.”
“Unfortunately,” Wade said, “the deplorable and unsafe condition of Jackson’s water system didn’t happen overnight but stems from decades of neglect and the intentional disinvestment of resources for the majority-Black municipality.”
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed from Washington.