Two years after entering into talks with the federal government, Jackson officials say they’re making progress in renegotiating terms of the city’s sewer consent decree.
The city has been under a decree since 2012.
Under it, Jackson has to spend some $950 million to bring its sewer system into compliance with federal water quality laws.
However, the Lumumba administration contends that costs related to the decree are too expensive and place a far too heavy burden on the city’s poorest residents.
To that end, the city approached the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Justice three years ago in hopes of renegotiating the agreement.
The administration officially entered talks with the agencies in 2018.
“When we first entered into dialogue they were highly resistant to a modification,” said Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine. “Over the course of time, they’ve become more accepting of the fact that the decree we have is far too expensive for Jackson.”
Blaine gave an update on the talks earlier this year to the city’s water and sewer ad-hoc committee. He said the administration is now working to “right-size” the decree and recently submitted a plan on how to pay the decree if new terms are put in place.
“We just submitted our long-term financial model, which is now being reviewed by an outside group, Industrial Economics,” he said. “Once that is accepted, we will start to build the program and financial schedules to fit that model.
“The whole point is for the financing … to align with the sequence of programs included in the consent decree, to make sure that we do what we said we’re going to do and have the finances that align with it.”
It was not known that review would be completed.
“I don’t’ have an exact timeline,” said Blaine. “We are at the mercy of the EPA as we do this work.”
Blaine said a new consent decree program would include focusing on projects that would give the city the biggest “bang for the buck.”
In other words, instead of spending money on equipment to remove nutrients from treated wastewater at the Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant, a modified decree would focus more resources on cleaning out clogged sewer lines.
“The goal is to not spend money on programs that are not going to provide the highest amount of return,” Blaine said.
“That’s the reason we are focusing on dry-weather SSOs. We know the majority of those happen because of some type of capacity reduction.”
SSOs are sanitary sewer overflows. These overflows occur when wastewater leaves the sewer system and enters the environment. Under the decree, the city is fined $1,000 a day for any SSO that enters any body of water defined as a “Waters of the U.S.”
Examples of those would be the Pearl River and its many tributaries, like White Oak Creek.
Dry-weather SSOs are caused by a number of things, including clogs in sewer lines, collapsed lines, and lines that have been infiltrated by tree roots.
“We want to focus on programs that create a the greatest reduction in SSOs … programs to clean out fats, oils and grease in a line; programs where we clean out tree roots that come into a line,” he said. “All of that cleaning is about returning conveyance to the system.
“We focus on that and we can get the most return for the least amount of money.”
Meanwhile, the city also is looking to reduce the overall cost of the decree to lift the burden on Jackson’s poorest residents.
Consent decree costs are essentially passed on to residents in the form of sewer fees. The higher the consent decree costs, the more the city would have to charge for sewer service.
At $945 million, the decree would place an extra $18,173 burden on each of the city’s 52,000 water/sewer customers.
Jackson is able to renegotiate the deal thanks to changes in federal policy under former President Barack Obama.
Previously, the feds determined a city’s ability to pay based on its median annual income.
In 2017, Deputy City Attorney Terry Williamson told the city council that the EPA now looks at how the decree would impact an area’s poorest residents.
“Instead of focusing on the median income (the EPA now focuses) on the lower 20 to 25-percent income levels and looks at what rates (would be necessary to do the work) and what impact (higher rates) would have on those folks,” Williamson said at the time.