Efforts to soften terms of Jackson’s sewer consent decree are officially under way.
Recently, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s administration met with federal officials to discuss challenges the city faces in meeting decree terms.
“We discussed which elements of the consent decree we’d like to see changed,” Public Works Director Robert Miller said. “They’re taking (our request) under advisement.”
The meeting included city officials and representatives with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).
Miller couldn’t say what elements of the decree the city would like to see changed, saying the matter was still being negotiated.
“The EPA’s stance is that whatever changes are made to the program, it still has to lead to compliance. I don’t know if we need more time, but we do need a more affordable program.”
Under provisions, Jackson must make an estimated $945 million in repairs and upgrades to its wastewater collection and treatment systems to bring them into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.
However, Jackson is dealing with a number of challenges in meeting the decree. Among them, the city continues to face shortfalls in water and sewer billing, recently had its bond rating downgraded, and is preparing to lose one of its biggest sewer customers, the West Rankin Utility Authority.
Meanwhile, consent decree costs have more than doubled since the city entered into the agreement in 2012.
“We’ve got all these challenges combined with higher program costs. We need to lay out significant modifications to the decree,” Miller said.
Because of shortfalls in billing, the city has had to put on hold some compliance work previously under way, including the implementation of a fats, oils and grease (FOGs) program. Jackson has also had to dedicate an increasing number of resources to repairing broken sewer mains, which have become more frequent in recent months.
Under initial terms, Jackson was given 17.5 years to bring its system into compliance.
At the time, consent decree costs were expected to run around $400 million. However, a recent assessment done by consent decree program managers Burns & McDonnell showed the work would now cost around $945 million. Costs have risen in part because of continued deterioration of the system.
The administration has been preparing for the negotiations for a little more than a year. Late last year, the city submitted several reports to the EPA, including a modified timeline for deliverables and a report on what Jacksonians could pay as it relates to decree work.
In May, Jackson hired Galardi Rothstein Group, a Chicago-based firm, which was responsible for reviewing the city’s billing and collection practices. Prior to that, the city brought on Kilpatrick Townsend and Stockton, an Atlanta-based law firm, to lead negotiations.
Miller said negotiations will take up to 18 months to complete.