The water in the Mississippi capital is safe to drink

JACKSON, Miss (AP) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Monday the water in the Mississippi capital was safe to drink, after months of sampling at a wastewater treatment plant overwhelmed by August’s flooding that caused major supply disruptions.

The besieged OB Curtis water treatment plant fell into crisis after a late summer flood that left 150,000 people without running water for several days. People waited in lines for water to drink, bathe, cook and flush the toilets. The crisis also contributed to higher costs for business owners who were already suffering from labor shortages and high inflation.

The city was already under a boil water notification since the end of July because the state health department found cloudy water that could cause disease. However, current water samples are under control of safe consumption, the EPA said.

“The current sampling confirms that the water supplied by JH Fewell Water and OB Curtis Water Treatment is safe to drink,” said Maria Michalos, an EPA spokesman, referring to two municipal wastewater treatment plants.

The agency has encouraged Jackson residents to be vigilant about updating and following up on all future boiling water recommendations as “local issues” may arise again. It is not yet certain if Jackson has too much lead and copper in the water. Lead and copper sampling is complete and results are expected in mid-November.

The samples were taken during a series of tests conducted by the EPA and the Mississippi Department of Health over the past few months, Mayor Jackson Chokwe Antar Lumumba said.

In a press conference, Lumumba said on Monday that city officials were informed that Jackson was “in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act,” a federal law that authorizes the EPA to set drinking water quality standards.

Current samples indicate Jackson’s water quality meets federal standards, although testing is ongoing.

The EPA coordinates with the city and the state health department to collect water samples and “confirm that the drinking water provided to customers meets the standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act,” Michalos said.

Although water pressure was restored in the days following the crisis in late August and the boil water notification was lifted, many people still do not drink it and have not done so in years due to continued distrust of water supplies.

In September, US Justice Department lawyers said they were “prepared to bring a lawsuit” against the city under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but hoped to avoid a legal dispute by reaching an “enforceable settlement”. Federal attorneys said state and local officials “were not acting to protect public health.”

Lumumba said on Monday that negotiations between city attorneys and the federal government were ongoing.

In response to the question of whether Jackson could still face legal action under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Michalos said that “the EPA does not comment on ongoing law enforcement cases.”

In an October 20 announcement, the EPA said it was investigating whether Mississippi state agencies discriminated against Jackson by refusing to finance a water system upgrade in a city where more than 80% of the population is black and about a quarter of the population lives in poverty.

Democratic representative Bennie Thompson, who represents Jackson, said the EPA’s civil investigation is expected to take about four months.

Lumumba also said the city is working on plans to secure a private company to operate the OB Curtis wastewater treatment plant. Several companies have already visited the factory, Lumumba said. Even when the city wants to outsource the operation and maintenance of the power plant to a private company, Lumumba insists that ownership of the city’s water supply should remain in the public domain.

On Friday, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves extended the state of emergency in connection with the water crisis until November 22. City officials are aiming to contract the private operator by November 17, Lumumba said.

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Michael Goldberg is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nationwide non-profit program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover hidden topics. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

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