Justice Department intervenes for struggling water system

Associated Press | 12/1/2022, 6 p.m.
The Justice Department made a rare intervention Tuesday to try to bring improvements in the beleaguered water system in Mississippi’s ...
EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, right, on Tuesday addresses a roundtable of Jackson-area business people, community leaders, residents and educators, about the efforts underway to deliver a sustainable water system for residents as Jackson, Miss. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, left, listens. Photo from The Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. - 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,” Mr. 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 percent 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,” Gov. 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.