EHS Administration, Enforcement and Inspection

EPA Watchdog Investigates Water Crisis in Jackson, Miss.

The EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a press statement on September 13, 2022, announcing it will begin an investigation into the Jackson, Mississippi, severe water crisis.

The city’s water system has been plagued with issues for years, having been the subject of many EPA enforcement actions, including emergency orders and notices of noncompliance. The Agency has noted numerous issues, such as flagged maintenance problems, inadequate staffing, inoperable equipment, and substandard monitoring for lead and other contaminants.

Approximately 180,000 Jackson residents were without safe drinking water and almost total loss of water pressure after the failure of the city’s main water treatment facility, the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, on August 30, 2022.  The water was not safe for pets or brushing teeth.

According to the Mississippi State Department of Health, the issues were due to:

  • Insufficient number of certified operators at the J.H. Fewell and O.B. Curtis water treatment plants;
  • Insufficient number of maintenance staff at all water treatment plants and to support the distribution system;
  • Failure of multiple raw water pumps at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant;
  • Low levels of water in storage tanks;
  • Low water pressure, impacting proper sanitation and education opportunities; and
  • Inconsistent disinfection levels, leading to the potential presence of enteric organisms, including, but not limited to, E. coli, cryptosporidium, or Giardia, in the drinking water being served to customers.

“Recent flooding, operational failures and understaffing at the treatment plant—and decades-long infrastructure decay, have culminated in an indefinite failure in the supply of safe tap water to Jackson water customers,” reports Time. “The governor called it a ‘health threat.’”

“This is a very different situation from a boil water notice, which is also a serious situation which residents of Jackson have become tragically numb to,” Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said at a press event on Monday, the Time article adds. “Until it is fixed, we do not have reliable running water at scale. The city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, to flush toilets and to meet other critical needs.”

Reeves issued a State of Emergency regarding the water crisis on August 30, 2022.

President Joseph Biden, Jr., also issued an emergency declaration for the area on August 30, 2022.

The presidential declaration authorized the Department of Homeland Security’s  Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate all disaster relief efforts that have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population and to provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures.

Although safe water and water pressure are currently restored for residents, the crisis is not over, as the system has a history of failure each time the Pearl River floods.

Funding to permanently correct the water system has not been available, Time continues.

“Mayors and city council members have called for repairs since the 1940s … In the 1970s and again in 2020, the EPA warned that the city had to get serious about updating its infrastructure to improve water quality,” states the Time article.  “The 2020 [EPA] report highlighted lead pipes, faulty monitoring equipment and insufficient staffing. Years of neglect have built up and in 2021 alone, the city had dozens of boil-water notices due to the old, fragile water system.”

“We’re facing an environmental injustice and we have been ignored. Jacksonians and people around the area have been ignored by state leadership and now they want to swoop in–all hands-on deck, fixing the problem–but we’ve been asking for help for years, not even just from this administration,” says Massie Brown, a community activist and organizer in Jackson, according to the Time article.

“Given the magnitude of the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, it is critical that the EPA OIG act with a sense of urgency to understand what has happened in that community,” stated OIG Inspector General Sean O’Donnell in the press statement.  “I have directed a multi-disciplinary team of oversight professionals to look into Jackson’s drinking water system. We have begun the process of conducting interviews and collecting data related to the oversight of the water system and administration of the state’s water revolving funds. That information will provide a basis for decisions about additional work to follow.”

The OIG serves as the watchdog for EPA activities, and its investigation will center on the EPA’s regulatory actions in Jackson.

“EPA can be held responsible if their oversight of the matter is found to be inadequate,” said Betsy Southerland, a retired EPA career official, according to Politico.

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