JACKSON, Miss. — A team from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General arrived in Jackson last week to begin a “multidisciplinary” top-to-bottom review of the current drinking water crisis, an agency spokesperson told NBC News.
“The EPA OIG is keenly interested and concerned about what is happening in Jackson, Mississippi,” said the spokesperson, Jennifer Kaplan. “Last week, we began sending OIG personnel to collect data and conduct interviews, and over the coming week we expect to announce work related to the city’s water system.”
The inspector general’s office is staffed by teams of auditors, evaluators and criminal investigators; the office did not say which specific teams were deployed to Jackson.
In recent years, the issues with Jackson’s water system have come under scrutiny from state and federal regulatory officials, who have flagged problems ranging from inadequate staffing at the city’s main water treatment plant to delays in carrying out needed repairs.
Residents recently experienced a dayslong outage of running water, and even now more than 150,000 residents in Mississippi’s capital still lack clean drinking water. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said Friday that a citywide boil-water notice in effect since July 29 was unlikely to be lifted over the weekend.
The inspector general’s inquiry in Jackson is similar to the EPA’s involvement in Flint, Michigan, beginning in 2014, which culminated in a blistering report on lead contamination four years later. That 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.”
The Flint water crisis ultimately resulted in nine indictments.
The inspector general’s Jackson review will start with conversations with local, state and federal players who have a role in overseeing the public resources dedicated to ensuring residents have clean water.
While the problems with water in Jackson are not new, the inspector general’s decision to begin a probe so soon after the crisis hit a boiling point appeared significant to Erik Olson, the senior strategic director of health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who said it could prove to be a large step forward from the bungled oversight of the Flint water crisis.
The inspector general’s independence of the EPA hierarchy would also challenge the longstanding dynamic on the ground, as regional EPA officials often work closely and have longstanding relationships with state and local governments, Olson said.
“I think the inspector general, who after Flint has recognized some of the huge flaws in EPA’s approach, could unearth a lot of the fundamental problems that have been occurring in Jackson and maybe even draw a line between the flaws in Flint and what’s happening here,” he said. “That would be potentially very powerful because they could document that there’s a systemic problem that has gone unresolved.”
The EPA previously looked into Jackson’s water treatment facilities in a March 2020 enforcement investigation that found problems at the city’s water treatment plants, including the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant that has been the focus of the city’s current water crisis.
The investigative report showed the city’s water treatment plants had “inoperable” equipment and “inadequate staffing,” had failed to monitor for lead and copper and had water filters that had been broken for three years. The report also noted that equipment had 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 online public records.
Mississippi is receiving roughly $75 million in EPA funds to improve drinking water and wastewater systems across the state, according to a December 2021 EPA funding announcement. It’s unclear how much of those funds are focused on Jackson.
Mississippi’s Legislature allocated $450 million of the state’s share of federal funds from the 2021 American Rescue Plan, a Covid-19 relief package, to water infrastructure improvements. Mississippi water utilities were able to begin applying for that money last week, with requests for funding due by Sept. 30.
Laura Strickler reported from Washington, D.C.; Bracey Harris reported from Jackson; Phil McCausland reported from New York.