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Jackson water crisis was ‘foreseeable,’ residents say in lawsuit

Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D), right, with other officials at the city's water treatment facility on Sept. 2. (Rogelio V. Solis/Pool/AP)
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A group of Jackson, Miss., residents is seeking class-action status for a lawsuit it filed this week accusing current and former city officials and contractors of neglecting Jackson’s water system for years, culminating in the crisis this summer that left more than 150,000 people without access to safe drinking water.

It is the first federal lawsuit seeking class-action status filed since severe floods caused Jackson’s already faltering main treatment plant to fail completely. Much of the predominantly Black city went days without water to drink, bathe or flush toilets. A boil-water notice was in effect for more than a month.

Echoing experts and advocates who have studied Jackson’s water issues, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege the crisis could have been prevented had officials taken action earlier to upgrade the city’s water system.

Even before the water supply failed in August, Jackson’s water was loaded with lead and other contaminants that made it hazardous to human health, the plaintiffs say.

“This public health crisis, decades in the making, was wholly foreseeable by Defendants’ actions,” the complaint states, “and has left Jackson residents in an untenable position — without access to clean, safe water in 2022 in a major United States city.”

The complaint lists four plaintiffs but says thousands of Jackson residents were exposed to contaminants or otherwise harmed by the city’s alleged failures. A judge must first find that many residents experienced the same issues — a process known as class certification — before the case can move forward as a class action.

The lawsuit names as defendants Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D), former mayor Tony Yarber and three former public works directors. It also names the industrial giant Siemens, which the city hired to provide water equipment and services, and Trilogy Engineering Services, which it hired to study corrosion in the water infrastructure.

A representative from Siemens said the company would not comment. Kishia Powell, who served as public works director from 2014 to 2016 before moving into a leadership role at the D.C. Water utility in Washington, declined to comment through a spokesperson. The other defendants did not respond to messages seeking to discuss the case or could not immediately be reached.

Lumumba has defended his administration’s handling of the water crisis, pushing back on criticism from the state’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, that city officials bore responsibility for the recent failures. In a town hall last week, Lumumba said it was unfair for state officials to claim that the city had no plan for fixing the dilapidated infrastructure. The city has a plan, he said, but needs more support from the state and federal government to execute it.

“There’s a difference between not having a plan and not having mutual priority over its funding,” he said. “You have a city where our needs exceed our ability to pay for them.”

During the height of the crisis last month, he said the system “has been failing for decades” amid insufficient support from state and federal officials. “We’ve been going it alone for the better part of two years when it comes to the Jackson water crisis,” he said.

The lawsuit by the Jackson residents alleges officials ignored repeated warnings of elevated lead levels and other problems with the city’s water and in some cases took actions that made the situation worse. It says Trilogy made a faulty recommendation on how to address contamination and alleges Siemens installed more than 20,000 water meters that gave inaccurate readings.

The complaint also keys in on the stability of the public water system, noting that it had nearly collapsed in winter 2021 when pipes and water mains burst.

“Defendants were acutely aware of problems that would later contribute to the 2022 failure and potential solutions to them,” the lawsuit says. “But they did not fix the system.”

The plaintiffs say they have all suffered personal injuries. One, Raine Becker, said the lack of clean, reliable water has made it harder for her to work and care for her terminally ill son. It says numerous other residents of Jackson have probably also been harmed.

The lawsuit asks the court to order the city to repair and upgrade the system, establish a medical monitoring program and pay damages to the plaintiffs.

Jackson is already facing a separate lawsuit filed last year on behalf of hundreds of children who may have been exposed to toxic lead levels in drinking water.