Jackson Water Crisis: DOJ Files Complaint Against City

, the Justice Department, on behalf of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), filed a complaint against the city
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Today, the United States filed a proposal in federal court that — if approved by the court — would appoint an Interim Third Party Manager to stabilize the city of Jackson, Mississippi’s public drinking water system, and build confidence in the system’s ability to supply safe drinking water to the system’s customers. The city and the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) have signed this order and agreed to its terms. At the same time, the Justice Department, on behalf of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), filed a complaint against the city alleging that the city has failed to provide drinking water that is reliably compliant with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to the system’s customers. 

The proposal, which was called a “proposed stipulated order” in court filings, is meant to serve as an interim measure while the United States, the city, and MSDH attempt to negotiate a judicially enforceable consent decree to achieve long-term sustainability of the system and the city’s compliance with the SDWA and other relevant laws.  

“Today the Justice Department is taking action in federal court to address long-standing failures in the city of Jackson’s public drinking water system,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “The Department of Justice takes seriously its responsibility to keep the American people safe and to protect their civil rights. 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.”

“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," said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “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. I’m grateful to the Attorney General for his partnership and commitment to this shared vision.”

“Every American — regardless of where they live, their income, or the color of their skin — deserves access to safe, reliable drinking water,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “For many years now, the people of Jackson have lived in uncertainty — uncertainty about whether, on any given day, the water that flows from their taps will be safe to drink. With our court filings today, we have taken an important step towards finally giving the people of Jackson the relief they so desperately deserve.”

“It is vital that providers of drinking water comply with federal and state laws designed to ensure the safety of the water,” said U.S. Attorney Darren J. LaMarca for the Southern District of Mississippi. “Through this litigation, we will act to ensure that the city of Jackson’s water system will be compliant with the Safe Drinking Water Act and other state and local regulations so that those serviced by the system can have confidence that the water they are consuming is safe. The proposed agreed interim order is a critical first step.” 

The proposal seeks the court’s appointment of an Interim Third Party Manager that would have the authority to, among other things:

Operate and maintain the city’s public drinking water system in compliance with SDWA, the Mississippi Safe Drinking Water Act, and related regulations;

Take charge of the Water Sewer Business Administration, the arm of the city responsible for billing water users;

Implement capital improvements to the city’s public drinking water system, in particular, a set of priority projects meant to improve the system’s near-term stability, including a winterization project meant to make the system less vulnerable to winter storms; and

Correct conditions within the city’s public drinking water system that present, or may present, an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of the city’s residents. 

This court filing marks the latest efforts to address Jackson’s drinking water crisis, but there is much work still to be done to solve the myriad problems plaguing Jackson’s public drinking water system. On July 29, MSDH issued a boil-water notice for Jackson’s public drinking water system. The next month, the city proclaimed an emergency after excessive rainfall and extreme flooding prevented the system from delivering any water to the approximately 160,000 persons living within the city and in certain areas of nearby Hinds County who rely on the system. That meant that many of those residents had no running water to drink, or to use for basic hygiene and safety purposes like washing hands, showering, flushing toilets, fighting fires, or washing dishes. The water pressure was not restored until Sept. 6, and the boil-water notice remained in effect until Sept. 15.

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