Ted Henifin, the City of Jackson's water system third-party administrator, speaks about the company that will be running the city's water treatment plant operations during a press conference at Hinds Community College in Jackson, Miss., Friday, February 24, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

During a wide-ranging discussion of the next steps for Jackson’s water system in federal court Wednesday, the attention zeroed in on a document familiar to many Jacksonians.

Since 2016, after Jackson failed to meet federal standards for lead in drinking water, the city has sent out regular notices to residents warning them of potential contamination.

“Our water system violated a drinking water standard and a drinking water requirement,” the notice starts. “Although this is not an emergency, as our customers, you have a right to know what happened, what you should do, and what we are doing to correct this situation.”

The letter specifically warns pregnant women and children 5 and younger to take extra precautions — including running cold water for a minute before use, and not using unfiltered tap water for baby formula — because of potential lead contamination.

During Wednesday’s status conference updating Judge Henry Wingate on the ongoing rebuild of the water system, federally appointed third-party manager Ted Henifin argued that the notices are unnecessary, especially because the city hasn’t shown lead levels above the federal action level since 2015.

The Mississippi State Health Department, in enforcing the federal rules, requires the city to send out the notices until it completes a “corrosion control plan,” which would help ensure lead doesn’t leach off of old pipes into the drinking water. The latest notice says the city’s plan will be operational by August.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, left, listens as Ted Henifin speaks during a press conference at City Hall in Jackson, Miss., Monday, December 5, 2022. Henifin was appointed as Jackson’s water system’s third-party administrator. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Both Henifin and Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba have questioned the impact of the notices on residents and their willingness to drink from the taps, given the decades of instability from the water system.

Last week, while unveiling $100,000 worth of water filters donated to the city by United Healthcare, Lumumba said the filters may help restore confidence in the system lost because of the lead notices. Local advocates have called for the government to provide filters out of concern for residents living in older homes, where there’s a higher likelihood of lead being in the home’s plumbing.

But Henifin, as he told the court Wednesday, took issue with Lumumba’s wording, arguing it could cause residents to think the water is dangerous to drink. Henifin repeatedly said that the water is safe for everyone, including pregnant mothers and young children. If anything, he said, the filters could make the water less safe if residents don’t change the filters out every four months, which could cause bacteria to build up.

His statement contradicted advice that Health Department has given Jacksonians for years. The agency’s website says: “Any child five years of age or younger and any pregnant woman should use filtered water (NSF53 certified filter) or bottled water for drinking and cooking.”

Lumumba, defending himself, pointed to other comments he made at last week’s event, when he said, “It hasn’t been demonstrated that the water is in fact dangerous.” The mayor made the clarification after a local doctor, John Patterson, said unfiltered water could be dangerous for those vulnerable populations. During questioning from Wingate, Lumumba said it’s his personal belief that the water is safe to drink.

Wingate called Wednesday’s conference to clear up the public messaging around the city’s water system. He said it’s not only the court’s duty to help repair the water system, but also to “instill confidence in the public” that the water is safe to drink.

When called upon by Wingate, an attorney representing Health Department said that the agency requires the notices to comply with federal standards, and that the notices are only meant to provide information to residents.

Both the Health Department and the City of Jackson are defendants in an ongoing lawsuit alleging a coverup of the city’s lead contamination dating back to 2013.

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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.