City seeking federal grant to determine whether it needs new water treatment plant

Jim Craig, with the Mississippi State Department of Health, left, leads Jackson Mayor Chokwe...
Jim Craig, with the Mississippi State Department of Health, left, leads Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, right, Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), center, and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, rear, as they walk past sedimentation basins at the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Facility in Ridgeland, Miss., Friday, Sept. 2, 2022. Jackson's water system partially failed following flooding and heavy rainfall that exacerbated longstanding problems in one of two water-treatment plants. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool)(Rogelio V. Solis | AP)
Published: Dec. 6, 2022 at 6:07 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A grant currently being sought by the city of Jackson could help shape the Jackson’s water system for decades to come.

Tuesday, the city council voted 6-0-1 to authorize the mayor to apply for more than $9.6 million through FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grant program.

If approved, the grant would be used to determine whether Jackson needs to build a new water treatment plant or refurbish its existing ones, said Acting City Engineer Robert Lee.

“It’s a planning and design grant for either a new water plant or refurbishing our existing water plants,” he said. “The planning piece of it is to see what our production needs are and then, from the planning side, do the design work.”

Total cost for the planning and design would be around $13,750,000. The federal share of that would be $9,625,000, meaning the city would have to come up with the remaining $4 million or so to provide as a match.

Lee told the council those funds would likely come from a state Revolving Fund loan.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told the council other pots of money also were available to provide the match if needed and urged the council to vote in favor of it.

“There is an expectation from the federal government that we’re going after this, as we are [going after] other funds,” he said. “This is part and parcel of the discussion with the federal government about the opportunities we’re going after. And I think it will send a message to the things that we’re requesting they do, apart from the already competitive grants, if we don’t make an effort to do this.”

The city is currently in talks with the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice on a water system consent decree. A consent decree would essentially be a court-enforced order that would require the city to bring its system into compliance with the Safe Water Drinking Act.

Last week, a federal judge imposed an “interim stipulated order,” essentially putting the city’s water system under federal receivership until that decree is hammered out.

Ted Henifin was named interim third-party manager as part of that order and is responsible for ensuring it is carried out.

Henifin says part of the BRIC study will determine whether it would be feasible to retrofit the city’s existing treatment plants to meet changing drinking water standards.

“There’s a good chance, I’d say better than chance, that somewhere in the next 10 years, drinking water standards are going to... evolve,” he said. I’d say that we’re definitely going to have to add some additional granular-activated carbon filtration and maybe some ozone. These are the latest technologies to try to get perfluoroalkyl compounds (PFAS)... out of drinking water.”

According to the EPA’s website, PFAS are “a group of manufactured chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s.”

Studies show that the compounds “break down very slowly and can build up in people, animals and the environment” causing adverse health effects, the EPA states.

“There’s going to be a requirement that there’ll be a period of time when plants are going to have to upgrade to meet those new standards. And it’s going to be a significant investment at that time,” he said. “So, why not look today at what might be [about] to happen in the future for Jackson, and does it make sense, at that point, to make more investments at Curtis or Fewell, if you could come up with a single plant that could provide all the needs at the right location.”

That retrofitting would come even as the stipulated order will force Jackson to set aside tens of millions of dollars a year to help maintain the city’s water system, and as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified an estimated $93 to $139.9 million in repairs needed for both the O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plants.

Curtis, Jackson’s main treatment facility, was the epicenter of the August/September water crisis, after flooding from the Pearl River led to numerous equipment failures at the site. As a result of those failures, tens of thousands of people were without running water for days.

Then, there’s the Fewell plant, which is more than 100 years old. Fewell was constructed in 1914 and upgraded in 1944. Because of its age, replacement parts for the equipment in use there are no longer made, according to Lester Herrington, who was assistant commander of the team that headed up the state’s response to the water crisis. “It is literally an operating museum,” he said at a Rotary Club meeting last month.

Plans were to eventually shut down the Fewell plant. However, the plant was never decommissioned, even after the Curtis plant was expanded in 2007.

In fact, the city has relied on Fewell as a backup to Curtis on multiple occasions, including at the height of the water crisis, when the Mississippi State Department of Health authorized it to produce up to 30 million gallons of water a day. At the time, Curis was producing less than half of its 50-million-gallon capacity.

“I think everyone would agree that Curtis is not the most efficient plant... And so, do you want to continue along those lines, or take advantage of the potential ability to build a new plant at some point to take us into the next 50 years or longer?” Henifin said. “I think that’s what the BRIC grant is really about. And the nice thing is, if we get that decision and understand that early on, then the planning and investments we need to make [at] the existing plants changes a little bit, because you sort of know exactly how long you need to be operating those plants.”

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