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Feds want a manager to oversee the troubled water system in Jackson, Mississippi

The city and the state Health Department have signed the proposal, which needs the approval of a federal judge.
/ Source: Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — The federal government filed a proposal Tuesday to appoint a manager 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 meant to be an interim measure while the federal government, the city of Jackson and the Mississippi State Department of Health try to negotiate a judicially enforceable consent decree. The goal is to achieve long-term sustainability of the system and the city’s compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and other laws.

The city and the state health department have signed the proposal, which needs approval of a federal judge.

The Justice Department on Tuesday also filed a complaint on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency against Jackson, alleging that the city has failed to provide drinking water that is reliably compliant with the Safe Drinking Water Act. According to the agreement, that litigation will be put on hold for six months while all parties try to improve the water system.

Edward “Ted” Henifin was appointed as interim third-party manager of the Jackson water system and Water Sewer Business Administration, the city’s water billing department. An online profile of Henifin says he is a registered professional engineer who served 15 years as general manager of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District in Virginia. Before that, he served as director of public works for the city of Hampton, Virginia.

The proposal lists 13 projects that Henifin will be tasked with implementing. The projects are meant to improve the water system’s near-term stability, according to a news 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 long-standing failures in the city of Jackson’s public drinking water system.”

“The Department of Justice takes seriously its responsibility to keep the American people safe and to protect their civil rights,” 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 burdened by environmental harm.”

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 on the path to securing clean, safe water for Jackson residents,″ adding that he is grateful to Garland for acting quickly on the city’s water crisis.

“Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege to spend time with people on the ground in Jackson — many who’ve struggled with access to safe and reliable water for years,″ Regan said. “I pledged that EPA would do everything in its power to ensure the people of Jackson have clean and dependable water, now and into the future. While there is much more work ahead, the Justice Department’s action marks a critical moment on the path to securing clean, safe water for Jackson residents.″

Jackson has had water problems for decades. Most of the city lost running water for several days after heavy rainfall 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 ill.

The boil-water advisory was lifted in mid-September, but many people remain skeptical about water quality.

About 80% of Jackson’s 150,000 residents are Black, and about a quarter of the population lives in poverty.