This is an aerial view of of the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Plant, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
A press conference held by Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba was thought to have misrepresented the safety of water for pregnant women and children.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba held a press conference where he announced the free distribution of water filters to “vulnerable populations,” in partnership with United Healthcare. Lumumba said pregnant women and young children could benefit from the pitchers.
The press conference prompted a status conference before U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate yesterday.
The third-party administrator tasked with cleaning up the ailing water system, Ted Henifin, immediately raised concern that the statements would create a false impression that the water was unsafe.
“We really need to be careful about our messaging regarding what is or is not in our water,” said Henefin.
During the course of the status conference, Judge Wingate sought clarity from Henifin on the condition of Jackson’s water supply.
Judge Wingate repeatedly asked Henifin whether or not Jackson’s water was safe for consumption. Henifin answered “yes,” without hesitation. He elaborated that today’s water in Jackson meets all of the Safe Drinking Water Act requirements. He emphasized that the water is safe for all Jacksonians, including pregnant women and children under the age of 5.
Mayor Lumumba agreed during the hearing that the water was safe to drink but stood by his comments at the press conference, saying he never insinuated it was not safe.
A video of the Mayor’s press conference was shown to the court. Speakers, which included Mayor Lumumba, said the filter pitchers were recommended for pregnant women and children.
The City of Jackson currently issues precautionary letters regarding lead and copper contents in the water, as instructed by the Mississippi State Department of Health. These letters have been going out since 2016, when trace amounts of lead were found in Jackson’s water supply. At the time, these numbers exceeded parameters set in place by the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Henifin said that over 90% of the tests done to detect lead in the water have come below the action level required, in the last seven years.
He added that there is no naturally occurring lead in the city’s system. Any lead reported comes from plumbing in individual homes. Homeowners in Jackson can have their own water tested by the MSDH.
Lead and copper testing is done every six months.
He said he could not speak as to why the MSDH still requires the precautionary recommendations. Representation for MSDH also agreed that the city’s water is safe and that the letters did not indicate that there was improper amounts of lead or copper in the water.
According to Henifin, the press conference was inherently misleading because it indicated that the filter pitchers should be used to ensure safety. He said the use of the filters are not needed for safety, but are a personal choice as simple as not enjoying the taste of the tap water.
He took the most issue with Dr. John Patterson’s, Clinical Services Director of Jackson-Hinds, comments that the filters would protect from “diseases” in the water.
“There is no basis for that statement and it is pretty damaging for them to make it,” said Henifin.
Mayor Lumumba did clarify in the press conference that there was no reason to believe there were any contaminants in the water currently.
Other misconceptions were mentioned regarding ingredients added to the water during the treatment process. The water system uses additives to maintain the PH balance of the water so that it does not corrode the pipes as it moves through the system. The additives include Soda Ash and lime. They are both commonly used in water systems across the nation.
A federal lawsuit was filed against the city of Jackson in 2022 after nearly 150,000 resident users of the water were impacted by the failing system. The Justice Department filed the complaint on behalf of the Environmental Protection Aency (EPA) for not complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act. Other class action suits have also been filed against the city.
While the hearing focused on the Mayor’s press conference, Henifin did provide the court an update on how the system is currently running. He said issues within the treatment plants continue to be addressed leading to more productive operations. This has allowed staff to shift their focus to the distribution portion of the system and begin to address damage that leads to leaks and breaks.
Recent federal funding at $600 million, has aided in the cities efforts to turn the water system around after years of neglect.