JACKSON, Mississippi. The federal government submitted a proposal Tuesday to appoint an administrator for the troubled water system in Mississippi’s capital city, which nearly collapsed in late summer and continues to struggle.
The Justice Department said in a news release that the proposal is intended as a stopgap measure while the federal government, the city of Jackson and the Mississippi State Department of Health try to negotiate a court-enforceable consent decree. The goal is to achieve long-term sustainability of the system and city compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and other laws.
The city and the state health department signed off on the proposal, which requires approval by a federal judge.
The Justice Department also on Tuesday filed a complaint on behalf of the US Environmental Protection Agency against Jackson, alleging that the city has failed to provide drinking water that reliably complies with the Safe Drinking Water Act. Under the agreement, that litigation will be suspended for six months while all parties try to improve the water system.
Edward “Ted” Henifin has been appointed as the interim outside manager for Jackson’s water system and the Water and Sewer Business Administration, the city’s water billing department. An online profile of Henifin says he is a registered professional engineer who served for 15 years as general manager of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District in Virginia. Prior to that, he served as the director of public works for the city of Hampton, Virginia.
The proposal lists 13 projects that Henifin will be tasked with implementing. The projects aim to improve the short-term stability of the water system, according to a press release. Among the most pressing priorities is a winterization project to make the system less vulnerable. A cold snap in 2021 left tens of thousands of people in Jackson without running water after pipes froze.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in the news release that the Justice Department is “taking action in federal court to address longstanding failures in the City of Jackson’s public drinking water system.”
“The Justice Department takes its responsibility to keep the American people safe and protect their civil rights very seriously,” Garland said. “Together with our partners at EPA, we will continue to seek justice for the residents of Jackson, Mississippi. And we will continue to prioritize cases in the communities most affected by environmental damage.”
EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who has been to Jackson four times in the past year, said the Justice Department’s action “marks a critical moment in the journey to ensure safe, clean water for Jackson residents,” adding that he is grateful to Garland for acting. quickly about the city’s water crisis.
“Over the past year, I have had the privilege of spending time with people in Jackson, many of whom have struggled for years to have access to safe and reliable water,” Regan said. “I promised that the EPA would do everything possible to ensure that the people of Jackson have clean, reliable water, now and in the future. While much work remains ahead, the Justice Department’s action marks a critical moment in the journey to ensure safe, clean water for Jackson residents.”
Jackson has had water problems for decades. Most of the city was left without running water for several days after heavy rains exacerbated problems at the city’s main water treatment plant in late August. When that happened, Jackson had already been under a boil water advisory for a month because health inspectors had found cloudy water that could make people sick.
The boil water advisory was lifted in mid-September, but many people are still skeptical on water quality.
About 80% of Jackson’s 150,000 residents they are blackand about a quarter of the population lives in poverty.