Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, during his fourth visit to Jackson in the last year, and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba underlined the importance of the public’s trust and participation as they sat next to each other during a roundtable discussion Tuesday over the city’s water situation.
“The mayor and I have talked about this a number of times, we know we have to earn trust, it’s not something that’s going to be given,” Regan said in an auditorium at Jackson State University. “We’re willing to work for that.”
“I don’t think that the solution just sits at this corner of the table,” Lumumba said, gesturing to where he and Regan sat. “I think it will be created by what we collectively do.”
But the public, at this point, has little access to what the next steps will be, as details over a short-term solution for the water system are sealed behind a confidentiality agreement until the city reaches an agreement with the Department of Justice.
Regan, though, provided some insight into what that process will look like: Once the two sides reach an agreement, it will go to the Jackson City Council for approval, and then back to Lumumba for his signature. Then, the DOJ will request that a federal court approve the proposal, the administrator said.
“I would then return to Jackson, sit down beside the mayor, and hopefully representatives from the state, and we will have a discussion about longer term solutions that would, at that point, include an opportunity for more public engagement,” Regan said.
Lumumba said in a recent interview with the Clarion Ledger that the negotiations will likely result in a “third-party administrator” who will operate outside the city’s control and who will be in charge of prioritizing projects and allocating federal funds. But he added that the arrangement won’t be a long-term solution.
“The federal government, as I understand it, isn’t looking to have some, you know, indefinite or permanent relationship in the city of Jackson,” the mayor said in the interview.
During the roundtable discussion, officials and community members raised the issue of trust, not just in the EPA, but in the water itself.
“My concern is for the citizens that have seemed to have lost hope and confidence in the consumption of water in the city,” said Rep. Bo Brown, D-Jackson.
Dwayne Pickett, a pastor at New Jerusalem Church, asked about communication between the public and the EPA, echoing that “there’s a loss of hope” among residents. Regan responded that the EPA will try to do a better job of having more public engagement opportunities, and reiterated that the public will be asked for input after the DOJ reaches an agreement with the city.
Last week, the city council approved a $720,000 contract with California-based Water Talent LLC to provide four Class A operators to Jackson through February. Lumumba declined to clarify whether the city will look for another contractor after that.
The new operators began work on Monday, as Gov. Tate Reeves’ state of emergency declaration is set to expire next on Nov. 22. Lumumba said he has requested an extension of the state of emergency.
When asked about long-term solutions such as regionalization and privatization, both of which Lumumba opposes, Regan said only: “I think we all share the same goal, everybody at the table wants this to be a public water utility system.”