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EPA staff found City of Jackson, Mississippi, water department had insufficient staffing, leading to gaps in routine and preventative maintenance, report says

<i>Austin Steele/CNN</i><br/>The O.B. Curtis Water Plant is seen in Jackson
Austin Steele/CNN
Austin Steele/CNN
The O.B. Curtis Water Plant is seen in Jackson

By Paul P. Murphy, CNN

During a March 2022 site visit, US Environmental Protection Agency staff found that the City of Jackson, Mississippi, did not have adequate staffing for its water system and that as a result of that, routine and preventative maintenance on parts of the system were not being performed.

The findings of the March 2022 EPA site visit were compiled in a July 2022 report prepared by Process Applications, Inc. The report was provided to CNN by the Mississippi Department of Health and the Mississippi Free Press was the first to report its existence.

“There are insufficient operators to consistently staff three shifts, seven days per week,” the report found at the time of the site visit. It also noted that because there were not enough plant or distribution system staff, the water department was unable to conduct preventative maintenance.

Although treatment plant operators received a salary increase in November 2021, the distribution system crews, in addition to maintenance and instrument technicians, did not. The report identified that there was “a loss of staff in these roles” that coincided with the lack of salary increases.

“In part due to lack of staff,” the report also noted that the city does not collect or record system pressure data, routinely flush its distribution system, document the locations and operational statuses of its valves, or perform routine maintenance on its valves and hydrants.

Adequate staffing, the report found, could not only optimize the system’s operation, but it could also help reduce its overall operational costs.

CNN reached out to the City of Jackson for comment on the report but did not immediately receive a response. At a Tuesday news conference, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba responded to an EPA official’s comments about water department staffing, saying that he was not “abreast of all the community recruitment efforts” and that 10 individuals were training to be class water operators — it can take up to six years to finish.

However, the mayor did not say whether the city had hired any new staff for the water department — the recommendation in the report — and instead said that the city had been transparent about staffing shortages and deferred maintenance.

Infrastructure problems aside, the City of Jackson also has major issues generating revenue from its water system and since 2016, the report notes that revenue has actually been decreasing.

Roughly 50 percent of the water in the system is “non revenue water,” meaning water that is not billed, or no payment is received.

Plant administrators told the EPA investigators during their March visit that, “malfunctioning water meters have contributed to a 32 percent decrease in revenue since 2016.”

While the city is replacing water meters — the process is expected to take 18 months — the report says that “there is uncertainty about whether the new meters will be capable of communicating with the billing system.”

But even the billing system is not functioning, the report says, and issues with it are not expected to be resolved, “until late 2024.”

The city told EPA staff in March that roughly 14,000 bills were “stranded,” meaning they were not sent to, or received by water customers.

Due to problems with the billing system, the City of Jackson was not only unable to provide a complete list of customers to the EPA team, but they also weren’t able to calculate its actual collection rate.

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