It’s now been 28 days since Jackson’s boil water alert was issued on July 29, 2022. There is no end in sight. This has been one of the most colossal municipal government failures in the history of our country.
When I first set out to write extensively about this, I promised to be as objective as possible and not immediately join the chorus of critics berating Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba.
Through the city’s public relations person, Justin Vicory, I reached out to mayor Lumumba, plant manager Mary Carter, Jackson city engineer Roger Lee, and public works director Marlin King. So far, I have talked to no one in the city administration.
Roger Lee and I played phone tag, but since he called me from his office line, I never got through. Instead, I emailed him several questions. No response. I emailed King too. No response. I never even got the contact info for Mary Carter.
We thought a Northside Sun question and answer interview with Mary Carter, the deputy director of water operations, would be a great idea given the intense public interest in the crisis. This was turned down.
So far, the state hasn’t been much better. I requested an interview with William Moody, head of the Bureau of Water Supply, at the Mississippi Department of Health. The four public relations specialists there couldn’t make that happen. So I emailed my list of questions to Moody. So far, no response.
Here are the questions I emailed:
1) Who tests the water, Jackson or MDH? How many people does it take to properly test the water? Do we have adequate staff for testing?
2) Is O. B. Curtis and Fewell operating at its designed capacity? People have told me only “3 of 6 lines” are operational and it has been that way for years. Is that true?
3) Are there any instances of illness caused by Jackson water? How is this tracked?
4) How much in capital expenditures is required to bring the Curtis/Fewell up to designed capacity?
5) Jackson city councilman Ashby Foote says staffing at the water plants should be 24 people but it is currently only 12. Is this true? Are the plants currently adequately staffed with appropriately trained personnel? If not, why?
6) Jackson recently received $42 million in ARPA funding from the state. How much of this went to the water plants?
7) How does the Jackson water situation compare to other cities in the state? Is it average? Or much worse than average?
8) How many system-wide boil water notices occurred in Mississippi in 2021?
Meanwhile, I have talked at length with Jackson city councilors Virgi Lindsay and Ashby Foote. As well as State Senator David Blount, Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann and his media specialist Leah Smith, Pete Perry who sits on the city 2 percent sales tax infrastructure board, State Senator Walter Michel, restaurateur Jeff Good, journalists Anthony Warren and Jimmy Hendrix (aka Kingfish) among others.
So far, not a single person I have talked to defended Mayor Lumumba. Many expressed intense frustration in the manner by which the mayor has handled the water crisis. This is not a good sign.
I eagerly await the mayor’s defense. As it stands, it didn’t take long to see a picture of an incompetent, arrogant mayor completely underwater, flailing helplessly and blaming everyone but himself.
Nothing would make me happier than to have to retract that statement. But I doubt that is going to happen.
To give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem: Operating without potable water is costing 600 food establishments $2,000 a week. That’s approximately $5 million down the drain since this boil water alert began.
To that you would have to add the cost of Jackson residents buying bottled water. The average person is supposed to drink five 12-ounce bottles of water a day. The average 12-ounce bottle of water costs fifty cents. That’s $425,000 a day in water, a total of $12 million dollars wasted since this crisis began.
Then let’s not forget the time it takes to go to the grocery store and get this water. Let’s say you have to make two trips a week just for water and the average trip takes 30 minutes. At $12 an hour, that’s another $3 million or so.
Add this all up, the Jackson water crisis has cost Jacksonians $20 million dollars. That’s almost a million dollars a day.
The boil water alert cannot be lifted until two days in a row of good tests. A reliable source told me the city needs three full-time testers to complete the tests in the required time but only has one tester. So it’s impossible to get the boil water alert lifted because we don’t have enough testers.
Is this true? I have tried to find out, sending emails and phone calls both to the city and the state. So far, no response.
When I was a young journalist, people in government and business would talk to journalists in a cooperative effort to convey important information to the public through established media channels like newspapers, radio and television stations.
Now the world has changed. With the rise of unreliable social media, nobody talks to anybody for fear of some misstatement going viral. Governments forbid employees from talking, which by the way, is a violation of the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution which guarantees free speech.
Even members of the Jackson city council have been banned from talking to the heads of city departments by a mayoral order. That’s nuts! This is the United States, not Soviet Russia.
I have filed an open records request to the city of Jackson, but these are often ignored, which is illegal. So far, no response.
If I were mayor of Jackson, I’d be working round the clock to fix the problem. Heck, I’d be doing the tests myself if I had to. And then I would be shouting from the rooftops what we’re doing to fix the problem. I would be talking to every possible media outlet to keep the citizens informed.
Instead, we can’t even get the city to apply for tens of millions in available state and federal infrastructure funding.
Jackson’s water plants are in disrepair and are half-staffed. Desperate emails from the plant manager to city officials expose the magnitude of the problem.
On May 18 of this year, Mary Carter, deputy director for water operations, emailed Marlin King, public works director, a lengthy, frustrated email detailing a complete collapse of morale at the O. B. Curtis water treatment plant. Here’s one brief excerpt:
I worked 24 to 36 hours at OBC every Saturday and Sunday 7a-7p and Wednesday or Thursday night 7p-7a over six (6) months last year because of the Class A operator shortage. At this point, I am just worn down. I hope that somehow you understand. I don’t want us in the news for a Notice of Violation from USEPA for not having a Class A operator on site at all times . . . It appears that you don’t understand the urgency of this situation.
I was nervous about the election of Lumumba. He had zero managerial experience. I urged him to find and hire the best city manager in the country. He ignored me. The public works director is an architect. The mayor’s chief of staff is a professor. The chief administrative officer is a retired Entergy executive. None of the top city officials have any hands-on experience of running a city.
Half the positions necessary to run the water plant are vacant. Ashby Foote says only 12 of 24 positions are filled at the O. B. Curtis plant. Instead of hiring the best headhunter in the nation to scour the country to find the right professionals and pay them whatever is necessary, the city is posting the positions on its website. Oh, by the way, you must become a Jackson resident to get the job.
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