Jackson gets rare federal intervention in water crisis

Michael Gray-Lewis, Michael S. Regan, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Radhika Fox
Michael Gray-Lewis, a Jackson State engineering graduate questions EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, center, Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, left, and Radhika Fox, assistant administrator for water with the EPA, on efforts to deliver a sustainable water system for Jackson residents, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, at Jackson State University. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Jackson gets rare federal intervention in water crisis

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Federal help is on the way for Jackson, Mississippi, to alleviate its water woes after a judge approved an interim water manager to spearhead its efforts to reform the failing system.

The Justice Department, the city of Jackson, and state officials reached an agreement for an interim water manager, and the DOJ filed a proposal Tuesday as all sides work to negotiate a court-enforced consent decree for the long-term outlook of the city’s water situation. Now that a judge has approved it, Edward “Ted” Henifin will assume the post.

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“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. It is now out of the city’s control, and will be overseen by a federal court,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba welcomed the appointment of Henifin.

“After months of collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Mississippi Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the City of Jackson is pleased that we have finally reached an agreement that represents a critical next step in our efforts to provide immediate and long-term solutions for Jackson’s water issues,” he said, per WPAT.

Henifin is an engineer with over 40 years of public works experience, including 15 years as a general manager of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District in Virginia Beach, Virginia. As interim manager, he will oversee Jackson’s Water Sewer Business Administration and work toward immediately improving the city’s public drinking water system.

“We have to get something done immediately,” Attorney General Merrick Garland declared at a press conference, CBS reported. “The water is a problem right now, and we can’t wait until a complaint is resolved.”

As all sides work to chart out a long-term arrangement to address the water crisis, the Justice Department is also challenging the city in court. On Tuesday, it filed a complaint in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency, accusing the city of failing to provide drinking water in keeping with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Given U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate’s approval of the interim water manager, litigation over the complaint will be held up for at least six months, according to CBS. Garland said the complaint is part of the DOJ’s efforts to negotiate a consent decree.

Jackson’s safe drinking water supply nearly collapsed over the summer after torrential rainfall triggered massive flooding near parts of the city that overwhelmed an already faulty water treatment facility. As a result, tens of thousands of residents were straddled without reliable drinking water, and the governor declared a national emergency.

A bit of a blame game ensued, with city and local officials engaging in blame trading over who bore the responsibility for the embattled city’s thirst for water. Decades of deficiencies in the city’s water infrastructure had long been unaddressed — for example, last winter, a cold snap caused pipes to burst and left thousands without reliable water.

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Back in May, the DOJ formed an environmental justice division, and Garland has expressed his eagerness to alleviate environmental problems in “overburdened and underserved communities.”

Jackson has a population of about 150,000 residents, 83% of whom are black.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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