Water flows through the low head dam at waterworks curve on the Pearl River Wednesday, October 17, 2018 near Mayes Lake Campground in Jackson. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, is hoping to bring more accountability over Jackson’s ongoing pollution of the Pearl River through the city’s failing wastewater system, despite a federal agency already enforcing the issue through a consent decree.

House Bill 1094, which passed through its House committee last Tuesday, would fine the capital city up to $1 million for each “improper disposal” of wastewater or sewage into the river.

Currie said a consent decree being enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency and Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality since 2012 is not doing enough to protect the Pearl River from Jackson’s pollution. The fines that could result from HB 1094, she explained, would go to help clean up the river in the areas of the state downstream from Jackson.

Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, AP

“When you dump raw sewage in (the Pearl River) for other counties to worry about, it’s disgusting,” said Currie, who’s district includes towns, such as Monticello, bordering the river downstream of Jackson. “When you go down the Pearl River, you can see toilet paper hanging off little branches.”

Currie said that the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality told her that the agency hasn’t yet fined Jackson for such discharges, but an MDEQ spokesperson clarified that it hasn’t issued a fine since the 2012 federal consent decree.

The agency has collected nearly half a million dollars in fines over the city’s wastewater issues, which includes a $240,000 penalty assessed in 2010 for violations at Jackson’s Savanna Street plant, and a $175,000 fine issued as a result of the 2012 order.

The consent agreement gave Jackson about 18 years to make a list of fixes with its wastewater system, but required most of those fixes to be done within 11 years, or by November this year. Citing a lack of funding and staffing, the city hasn’t completed many of the required fixes, and is now attempting to renegotiate the settlement with the EPA.

The Pearl River looking north from U.S. 80 on Apr. 15, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Currie didn’t speak to how this bill would impact the EPA’s dealing of the issue, saying only that whatever enforcement is happening is not enough.

“(The EPA) is obviously not on top of it if (the pollution) continues to happen,” she said. “How many years has this gone on? So everybody downstream should just pay the price for Jackson not tending to their business?”

Currie called the Pearl River important for the “way of life” of communities downstream of Jackson, with Mississippians using the river to swim, canoe and catch fish. She said that polluting the river is harmful in a number of ways, affecting oysters on the Coast as well as businesses that use the water such as Georgia Pacific, although the latter of which is itself a top polluter in Mississippi. Over the last five years, Georgia Pacific pulp mill on the Leaf River has been among the facilities with the most toxic releases in the state with 15.7 million pounds.

When asked about HB 1094, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said he questioned the legality of “a number of things being suggested,” and that there is an “order to these things” being led by the EPA. The mayor added that lawmakers this session are looking to punish Jackson in a number of ways.

“We are clearly the object of the state House’s affection,” Lumumba said Monday during a press conference. “I think that they’re just more ways contemplated to be increasingly punitive of the city of Jackson. Let’s call a spade a spade.”

In its latest annual report last spring, Jackson reported 13 prohibited bypasses, or times when the city allowed untreated or partially treated wastewater into the river, usually because of too much water entering the plant at one time. Those bypasses totaled 2.1 billion gallons between March 2021 and February 2022, a 30% decrease from the previous year.

The city also reported over 500 sanitary sewer overflows from its collection system in that time, or more than one every day. Those overflows are when untreated sewage leaks out of the system, and the city said most of its overflows that year happened because of either grease blockages or collapsed pipes.

Since 2019, MDEQ has cautioned residents against activities such as swimming, wading or fishing in the segment of the Pearl River neighboring Jackson. The agency later updated the advisory to include streams, such as Hanging Moss Creek and Eubanks Creek, that flow through the city.

The federal consent decree says the city is subject to fines for additional Clean Water Act violations, including a $10,000 penalty for each prohibited bypass and a $2,000 penalty for each sanitary sewer overflow.

The Pearl River looking west from the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge, south of downtown Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

“Historically, EPA has taken the lead on enforcements under all federal consent decrees, and in any event, MDEQ, because we are co-plaintiffs with EPA, cannot take unilateral action to collect the stipulated penalties,” MDEQ spokesperson Jan Schaefer told Mississippi Today. “In the meantime, MDEQ, along with EPA, has been ‘assessing’ stipulated penalties and those stipulated penalties continue to accrue.” 

Neither agency could say how much Jackson has accrued in penalties since the 2012 order before this story published.

Jackson, Meridian, Hattiesburg and Greenville are all under a federal consent decree because of wastewater violations. While those cities are starting to see support through historic new federal infrastructure funds, leaders of those cities told Mississippi Today last year that more money is needed to make all the necessary repairs.

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Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on NBC.com. In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.