EPA inspector general investigates Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis

JACKSON, Mississippi — A team from the Office of the Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency arrived in Jackson last week to begin a top-to-bottom “multidisciplinary” review of the current drinking water crisis, a spokesperson said. agency spokesperson to NBC News.

“The EPA OIG is deeply interested and concerned about what is happening in Jackson, Mississippi,” spokeswoman Jennifer Kaplan said. “Last week we began sending OIG staff to collect data and conduct interviews, and over the coming week we plan to announce work related to the city’s water system. .”

The Office of the Inspector General is made up of teams of auditors, assessors and criminal investigators; the office did not specify which specific teams were deployed to Jackson.

In recent years, problems with Jackson’s water system have come under intense scrutiny from state and federal regulators, who have reported issues ranging from insufficient staff at the city’s main sewage treatment plant to delays in carrying out the necessary repairs.

Residents recently experienced a running water outage for several days, and even now more than 150,000 residents of the Mississippi capital still lack clean water. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said Friday that a citywide boil water advisory in effect since July 29 is unlikely to be lifted over the weekend.

The Inspector General’s investigation in Jackson is similar to the EPA’s involvement in Flint, Michigan, from 2014, which resulted in a blistering report of lead contamination four years later. The report concluded, “The EPA should strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the agency’s response to drinking water contamination emergencies.

Flint’s water crisis eventually resulted in nine indictments.

The Inspector General’s Jackson Review will begin with conversations with local, state and federal actors who have a role in overseeing public resources devoted to ensuring residents have clean water.

While Jackson’s water problems aren’t new, the inspector general’s decision to launch an investigation so soon after the crisis reached a boiling point seemed significant to senior strategic director Erik Olson. Health and Food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which said it could prove to be a big step forward from the failed oversight of Flint’s water crisis.

The independence of the inspector general from the EPA hierarchy would also challenge long-standing dynamics on the ground, as regional EPA officials often work closely together and maintain relationships longstanding relationship with state and local governments, Olson said.

“I think the Inspector General, who after Flint recognized some of the huge flaws in the EPA’s approach, could uncover a lot of the fundamental problems that happened in Jackson and maybe even draw a line between the Flint’s flaws and what’s going on here,” he said. “That would be potentially very powerful because they could document that there is a systemic problem that is unresolved.”

The EPA previously reviewed Jackson’s water treatment facilities during a March 2020 enforcement. investigation which has found problems at the city’s water treatment plants, including the OB Curtis water treatment plant which has been at the center of the city’s current water crisis.

Cases of bottled water are distributed at a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition distribution site
Cases of bottled water are distributed at a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition distribution site in Jackson, Mississippi, Aug. 31.Brad Vest/Getty Images

Investigation report showed city water treatment plants had ‘unusable’ equipment and ‘understaffed’, failed to monitor lead and copper and had filters water tanks broken three years ago. The report also noted that the equipment collapsed in 2018, “putting the lives of two water operators at risk”.

The city of Jackson unsuccessfully applied for EPA funds to rehabilitate more than 100 collapsed pipe sites in 2019, according to public records online.

Mississippi is receiving about $75 million in EPA funding to improve drinking water and sanitation systems statewide, according to a December 2021 EPA funding announcement. It’s unclear how much of these funds are concentrated in Jackson.

The Mississippi Legislature has allocated $450 million from the state of federal funds from the 2021 U.S. Bailout, a Covid-19 relief program, to improve water infrastructure. Mississippi Water Utilities were able to begin applying for that money last week, with funding requests expected by Sept. 30.

Laura Strickler reported from Washington, DC; Bracey Harris reported from Jackson; Phil McCausland reported from New York.

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