Looking BetterBy ANTHONY WARREN,
City’s outlook for consent decree improves under Lumumba
When Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba took office, the city of Jackson was facing a federal takeover of its sewer system for failing to follow through on consent decree mandates.
Nearly a year later, the talks of conservatorship have been staved off, and Jackson is working to renegotiate terms of the decree with the federal government.
“In the past, Jackson has had challenges in meeting the demands of the consent decree. We were actually to the point where the EPA was considering taking Jackson under conservatorship,” Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine said.
A takeover would have meant that Jackson would have lost complete control of its water and sewer program, meaning the city and its residents would be at the dictates of the federal government.
“We needed to demonstrate that we had a plan and could execute on the plan that we designed,” Blaine said. “That’s the process we’re in now.”
Jackson entered into the decree in 2012. Under the initial agreement, the city had to make some $400 million in upgrades to its sewer system to bring it into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.
Today, estimated costs to restore the sewer system are between $600 million and $800 million.
The decree is being enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice and monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In April, city officials met with the agency to discuss getting back on track.
Among steps, the city agreed to begin work resolving its water and sewer billing crisis, return sewer collections to normal, focus on preventing sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) and begin making improvements to the Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The city also asked the EPA to defer fines associated with Clean Water Act violations, so those funds could be used on sewer improvements.
Since then, Jackson has made significant progress. Last month, the Jackson City Council approved spending up to $5 million on SSOs as part a one-year term bid.
The council also approved issuing $30 million in bonds for the next round of improvements at the Savanna plant.
The council approved issuing the bonds in March. The funds will be used to make numerous repairs, including replacing three “clarifying mechanisms,” pumps and sludge de-watering equipment, and adding a new generator.
Clarifying mechanisms basically are used to remove solids from sewage water after it arrives at the plant. Sludge de-watering equipment removes that waste after it settles at the bottom of the plant’s storage basins, so it can be processed and hauled away
The loan will be issued through the state revolving loan fund and carry a 1.75 percent interest rate.
Last week, city officials received proposals from four firms hoping to design the $30 million in improvements.
The Ardurro Group of Houston, Allen & Horhsall of Ridgeland, Neel-Schaffer of Jackson and TRC, an international firm headquartered in Lowell, Mass., all submitted proposals.
The proposals will now be reviewed, and a recommendation will be taken to the city council for approval.
As for the billing crisis, the city brought on Siemens earlier this year to help correct the problem.
Last week, more than 8,500 of the 20,134 stranded accounts had been resolved, and more than $720,000 outstanding water fees had been collected.
“Right now, we’re in a phase of demonstrating that we can deliver on the promises we made,” Blaine said.
The city now meets with EPA on a monthly basis and continues to submit quarterly, semi-annual and annual reports.
Other milestones have also been reached. The city has cleaned and rehabbed 29,195 feet of the West Bank Interceptor.
The 67,628-foot sewer main runs along the west bank of the Pearl River, and has been a major source of SSOs for the capital city.
Those SSOs were caused when untreated wastewater leaked out of the pipeline and into the river.
For years, the river was under a contact advisory as a result.
According to the city’s last quarterly report, the city has apparently gotten SSOs there under control.
Only one occurred between January and March, the most recent quarterly data available. And it occurred on February 4, during peak flow times.
SSOs occur when untreated wastewater leaks out of the sewer system and into the environment. Jackson is charged $500 for each overflow that reaches water that is identified as part of the “waters of the U.S.”
The city is also charged for each day an SSO is ongoing, meaning an SSO that lasts for five days and reaches the waters of the U.S. would cost $2,500.
To date, about 800 SSOs have reached federal waters, pushing total fines for the city well beyond $450,000.