Jackson, Miss. — The U.S. Justice Department has won the approval of a federal judge to make an unusual intervention to improve Mississippi’s capital city’s precarious water system, Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday after the system’s partial failure. Later announced. The department filed the motion to intervene on Tuesday, and U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate granted it later that day in Mississippi.
The move allowed for the appointment of a third-party manager to oversee improvements to Jackson’s water system, which.
At a news conference in Washington, Garland said the proposal was necessary to “stabilize the situation” in Jackson as soon as possible while city, state and federal officials negotiate a court-enforced consent decree.
“We have to do something immediately,” Garland said. “Water is an issue right now, and we can’t wait for the complaint to be resolved.”
For days last August, people stood in lines in Mississippi’s capital for water to drink, bathe, cook and flush toilets as some businesses were forced to temporarily close due to a lack of drinking water. were The nearby Pearl River flooded after a partial water system failure this month, exacerbating long-standing problems at one of Jackson’s two water treatment plants.
The Justice Department also filed a complaint against the city of Jackson on Tuesday from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, alleging that it failed to provide drinking water that complies with the Safe Drinking Water Act. . By approving the proposal, Wingate put the litigation on hold for six months.
Garland said the complaint is intended to allow the Justice Department to negotiate a consent decree, which would give a federal court the authority to force changes to Jackson’s water system.
The proposal, signed by the city and state health departments, was the culmination of months of collaboration, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said in a news release Wednesday.
“The agreement is another step in a long process and a collective effort to ensure that the people of Jackson are not forgotten, and that our ultimate goal of creating a sustainable water system is achieved,” Lumumba said. will be fulfilled”. “We hope this collaborative effort to repair, replace and modernize Jackson’s water infrastructure will become a national model for other U.S. cities facing similar issues.”
Lumumba also praised the selection of Ted Henifin as interim third-party manager of the city’s water billing department, Jackson Water System and Water Sewer Business Administration. Lumumba said Hennepin, a former director of public works in Virginia, has played a “significant role” in bringing his expertise to local officials.
The Justice Department’s proposal lists 13 projects that Hannifin would be in charge of implementing. According to a news release, the projects aim to improve the near-term sustainability of the water system. Among the top priorities is the winterization plan to make the system less vulnerable. A winter snap in 2021 left tens of thousands of people in Jackson without water after pipes froze.
Garland said the Department of Justice’s involvement in Jackson’s water crisis is part of the department’s strategy to achieve environmental justice in “overburdened and underserved communities.”
“The founding purpose of the department was to protect the civil rights of American citizens. Part of the reason I wanted to be attorney general was to work on these issues,” Garland said Wednesday. “This is an example of using all the resources of our Justice Department on civil rights issues.”
In May, the Department of Justice, following President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign promise to elevate environmental justice issues into the government’s agenda. The Justice Department said in July it was investigating illegal dumping in black and Latino neighborhoods in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.
Garland said Jackson’s situation required the Justice Department to respond with “the greatest possible urgency.”
“We realize how terrible the conditions are,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine not being able to turn on the faucet and have clean drinking water.”