Violations of the Lead and Copper Rule dating back from 2016 were what led officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to scrutinize the city of Jackson’s water system.
The city and the EPA reached an agreement in June that will allow the city to get its drinking water system back into compliance with regulations. The cost will add up to $170 million, with $70 million needed to correct discrepancies at the two treatment plants and $100 million to repair issues with the city's water distribution system.
The records were obtained by the Northside Sun and show that the state and federal officials have been trying to ensure the city's compliance with state and federal standards regarding drinking water.
Key events detailed in the written and email correspondence between city, EPA and MSDH officials are presented here in chronological order.
According to a report issued to the Mississippi Department of Health (MSDH) by the EPA, the city of Jackson told the EPA in letter from April 14, 2006 that it intended to use maximum measures such as ultraviolent light to eliminate a hard-to-kill protozoan parasite, Cryptosporidium and avoid monitoring by the EPA.
The EPA said on February 18, 2020 the Jackson system hadn’t been providing UV-specific reporting to the MSDH as required. The report also said the city wasn’t monitoring UV effectiveness via flow rate, lamp status and light efficiency via the two plants’ control systems.
The EPA sent the MSDH an email on November 15, 2019 informing the agency that the city was in violation of the lead and copper rule with four separate treatment technique violations and that unless the agency contacted the EPA, they’d sent their report to city officials.
The city told the MSDH in a letter dated November 21, 2019 that the O.B. Curtis upgrades for compliance with the lead and copper rule would be completed by that month, but upgrades to J.H Fewell weren’t needed because existing corrosion control requirements could meet the standard. The city said it would have engineers conduct a study that would take a minimum of six months and the resultant report requiring an additional three months.
The MSDH replied with a letter on December 18, 2019 that said the additional delays would be deviating from the established compliance plan and the requirements of the lead and copper rule. This delay would require the MSDH to issue an additional violation notice to the city, necessitating an administrative hearing and a possible consent decree. The state agency also recognized the progress made by the city in trying to comply with the standard.
On January 15, 2020, the EPA informed the MSDH via letter that it intended to inspect Jackson’s two water treatment plants for adherence to the lead and copper rule and other possible violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
On February 12, public works chemist LaTanya Thomas-Bennett told other city of Jackson officials and the Mississippi Department of Health in an email that the lack of notification to the MSDH of the O.B. Curtis treatment plant exceedance of the turbidity standard was an oversight and that they’d take steps to make sure it didn’t happen again.
She also said Curtis had problems with keeping an adequate supply of water from the Ross Barnett Reservoir to the O.B. Curtis plant. Divers found 40 inches of debris in one of the 60-inch pipes and this caused a restriction in flow. The low levels in the clear well stirred up lime sediment which caused a violation of the turbidity standard.
She also said that the debris had been removed by January 31 and the raw water screens on the intake pipes would take four weeks to replace.
In another email that same day, Thomas-Bennett told city and MSDH officials that in her haste to get a report on the turbidities from the two treatment plants, she entered the wrong information for J.H. Fewell and only 13 bacteriological samples were submitted on February 3 rather than the required 14.
William Moody, director of the MSDH Bureau of Public Water Supply, sent the EPA a letter on February 28 that said, “in light of the multiple ongoing violations issued to the city and continued simultaneous compliance challenges of the various rules of the Safe Drinking Water Act,” department officials wanted the enforcement division of the EPA to take the lead in the enforcement process with the city. While Moody said in the letter that the MSDH recognized the city had an extra burden with problems with its water billing software and didn’t have access to unlimited fee collections, the city had access to Drinking Water Revolving Loan funds. Moody said the EPA taking the lead with the city would help protect both the health of consumers and the environment.
On March 12, 2020, MSDH officials told the EPA in an email that they had conducted a conference call with city officials about the city’s water issues on March 11. The agency was informed that both city engineer Charles Williams and Public Works Director Robert Miller were both out of the office.
City official Mary Carter was asked by the MSDH if she was aware that a Class A-certified operator was required to be always onsite at the two treatment plants. The MSDH asked Carter why some of the logbooks from the two plants had some shifts with no operators identified in the logs. She said it was an oversight and would be addressed, which the MSDH said was a significant deficiency to be cited. She also said she’d step in for shifts when no other Class A operator was available.
Also, the city sent the MSDH proof in November 2019 that an operator at O.B. Curtis applied for a license, but the application lacked the required proof of education.