Justice Dept. Strikes Deal to Address Struggling Water System in Jackson

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has sharply increased its role in monitoring the antiquated and failing water system in Jackson, Miss., reaching an agreement to help stabilize the drinking water supply in the city after tens of thousands of residents had no access to water over the summer.

As part of the agreement, the government’s lawyers proposed appointing an outside expert to oversee operations until the system is reorganized and major repairs can be made.

Local officials and Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican who has been highly critical of their efforts to deal with the problem, have agreed to the plan, and a federal judge approved the matter late Tuesday.

“We are approaching this with the greatest possible urgency and we believe our partners in this are doing so as well, so we will bring this to conclusion as soon as we possibly can,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland told reporters at the Justice Department on Wednesday.

The department, acting on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, also filed a civil suit against the city on Tuesday, accusing officials of failing to provide drinking water that reliably complied with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The city has long struggled with a lack of investment in its core infrastructure and diminished funding for city services like the water supply, trash pickup and road repairs as white residents have left for the suburbs. Boil-water advisories and disruptions to running water are common, and the city’s out-of-date pipes and water treatment facilities are prone to failure. In February last year, a winter storm burst pipes and water mains across the city, leaving more than 70 percent of residents on a boil-water notice.

A majority of citizens and elected officials in Jackson, the state capital, are Black and have frequently clashed with the Republicans, most of them white, who control the state legislature.

In late July, the state health department issued a boil-water notice for Jackson’s drinking water system in the wake of storms. A month later, heavy rainfall and extreme flooding swamped the system inside the city, and in parts of the surrounding Hinds County, forcing the city to declare an emergency.

That left many residents with no running water to drink or to use for basic activities — showering, washing hands, flushing toilets, running appliances or fighting fires.

It took about a week before service was restored, and boil-water warnings remained in force until mid-September.

Under the agreement, the interim manager would operate the city’s public drinking water system to bring it into compliance with federal and state laws, oversee the city agency responsible for billing and carry out improvements to the system, among other priorities.

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