EPA: Water in Mississippi’s capital city is safe to drink

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

The beleaguered O.B. Curtis water treatment plant fell into crisis after the late summer flooding left 150,000 people without running water for several days. People waited in lines for water to drink, bathe, cook and flush toilets. The crisis also added to the rising costs for business owners already saddled with a labor shortage and high inflation.

The city had already been under a boil-water notice since late July because the state health department found cloudy water that could make people ill. But current water samples pass muster for safe consumption, the EPA said.

“Current sampling confirms water delivered from J.H. Fewell Water and O.B. Curtis Water Treatment is safe to drink,” said Maria Michalos, a spokesperson for the EPA, referring to the city’s two water treatment plants.

The agency encouraged Jackson residents to stay vigilant about updates and follow all future boil water advisories, as “localized issues” may resurface. It is not yet certain whether Jackson has too much lead and copper in its water. Sampling for lead and copper has been completed and results are expected in mid-November.

The sampling was collected during a series of tests over the last several months conducted by the EPA and the Mississippi Department of Health, said Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba.

At a news conference, Lumumba said Monday that city officials had been informed that Jackson was “in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act,” the federal law that gives the EPA authority to set standards for drinking water quality.

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

The EPA is coordinating with the city and the state health department to sample the water and “confirm drinking water delivered to customers meets Safe Drinking Water Act standards,” Michalos said.

Although water pressure was restored in the days after the late August crisis and a boil water notice lifted, many people still don’t drink the water and haven’t been doing so for years amid lingering distrust of the supply.

In September, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice said they were “prepared to file an action” against the city under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but hoped they could avoid a legal dispute by reaching an “enforceable agreement.” Federal attorneys said state and local officials “had not acted to protect public health.”

On Monday, Lumumba said negotiations between city attorneys and the federal government are continuing.

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

In an Oct. 20 announcement, the EPA said it was investigating whether Mississippi state agencies have discriminated against Jackson by refusing to fund water system improvements in the city, where more than 80% of residents are Black and about a quarter of the population lives in poverty.

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

Lumumba also said the city is pressing ahead with plans to secure a private firm to operate the O.B. Curtis water treatment plant. Several firms have already toured the plant, Lumumba said. Even as the city looks to outsource the plant’s operations and maintenance to a private company, Lumumba has been adamant that ownership of the city’s water system should remain in public hands.

On Friday, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves extended the state of emergency over the water crisis until Nov. 22. City officials aim to have a contract in place with a private operator by Nov. 17, Lumumba said.

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

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