Nsombi Lambright-Haynes speaks during a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition press conference about Jackson's water issues at the Mississippi E-Center at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, March 22, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

In another attempt to insert local voices into the fixing of Jackson’s water system, city advocate groups filed a motion this week to intervene in the federal environmental lawsuit. 

Two local groups – The People’s Advocacy Institute and the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign – filed the motion this week to try and become parties to the case, which began last November following the city’s infamous water system collapse. The current parties are the U.S. Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Mississippi State Department of Health, and the City of Jackson.

The advocate groups are getting help from a large legal team, including the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, ACLU of Mississippi and Forward Justice. The National Resources Defense Council is also supporting the groups in an emergency petition they filed with the EPA last month. 

The groups’ sprawling concerns over how the water system is being handled include transparency from the current system manager – JXN Water, led by Ted Hedifin – and sending some of the historic influx of federal dollars towards local contractors.

“It is unconscionable that the federal government finally grants us hundreds of millions of dollars and there’s no requirement that these funds create employment for our residents,” Brooke Floyd of the Jackson People’s Assembly said in a press release. “This is one of the many reasons why we need a seat at the table.”

The groups have made a list of specific asks that include: 

  • Assuring the public the return local control of the water system once Henifin leaves
  • Requiring JXN Water to comply with public record and procurement laws
  • Requiring regular community meetings, as well as input from the community over hiring and contracting decisions 
  • Requiring monthly water system updates, versus the current quarterly requirement
  • Requiring a community ombudsman to consult with JXN Water over important decisions
  • Alerting residents of boil water notices in person, via text, e-mail, phone call and social media

“We’re in an age where people don’t get their information from one source,” said Rukia Lumumba, PAI’s Executive Director.

Advocates during a press conference Wednesday said residents aren’t receiving enough communication from JXN Water when experiencing poor water pressure or other issues, such as discoloration. 

Henifin, who has over 40 years of water system experience, has maintained that the city is complying with all water quality requirements. As far as pressure, JXN Water has repaired over 200 water line leaks, and its latest quarterly report says that only a few locations – Merit Health Hospital, some homes on Shannon Dale Road and the Henley Young Juvenile Detention Center – still have unreliable pressure, adding that solutions for those areas will take shape in the next quarter.

While the advocates’ motion to intervene went unopposed by both the city and the DOJ, the groups have already made many of the same requests to the presiding judge, who largely dismissed their concerns. 

At a July status conference, U.S. Judge Henry Wingate – who’s overseeing the case, and who put Henifin in temporary charge of the water system – heard in-person many of the comments echoed by the advocacy groups this week. Some of the speakers also pointed to a lack of local, Black leadership within JXN Water, and expressed concern that some of the larger contracts went to out-of-state vendors.

About 11% – or $2.65 million – of JXN Water’s spending has gone towards minority-owned contractors so far, according to the last quarterly report, and at least a few of those are local businesses. The largest contract so far was given to Texas-based Jacobs Engineering for about $10 million to staff the city’s water plants. The quarterly report added that while many services the water system requires are not available in Jackson, one of JXN Water’s goals is to create new small Black firms to meet those needs.

A week after the status conference, Wingate filed a response to the advocates where he panned them for bringing race up as a concern, arguing they were too concerned with the fact that Henifin is white and from out-of-state.  

“Overall, the presentations from Henifin’s critics were either uninformed, short-sighted, clearly political, well-intentioned but naïve, or (as earlier discussed) racist,” the judge wrote. 

Wingate pointed out that 90% of JXN Water’s 20-person team is Black. He largely dismissed the requests made for more transparency, and listed over 30 public appearances Henifin has made, adding that the manager plans to expand his public visibility. 

The judge also wrote that, through the hiring of a new call center — Protel Inc. in Rankin County — wait times for residents’ calls decreased dramatically, from over four hours when the city was handling calls to under two minutes on average.  

Some of the advocates who spoke at this week’s press conference took issue with the judge’s comments.

“This isn’t an attack on Mr. Henifin,” said Danyelle Holmes with MS-PCC. “This is not a Black or white issue. When the judge makes a statement that we just want someone Black to fix our water, that’s very disingenuous.” 

Others noted that many of the requests made at the July hearing went unaddressed in Wingate’s response. 

“We felt like it was unfortunate that he did not quite understand what we were trying to say,” said Makani Themba with the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition. 

The groups now wait as they hope Wingate will grant their motion to formally intervene in the case.

While Henifin has said that JXN Water has been transparent with how it’s operating, he agrees there’s work to do to improve educating and communicating with the public.

Billing and water shutoffs

This week, Jackson residents received letters notifying them that water shutoffs would begin this fall for water customers who haven’t paid their bills.

“No customers have been turned off yet,” Henifin said in a statement.

At status hearings, Henifin has emphasized that getting customers to pay their bills, which includes restoring trust in the water they receive, is a crucial step to long-term funding for the water system.

The letter states that less than six of 10 customers are paying their bills. Henifin has estimated that thousands of properties are using the city’s water without an account. While JXN Water is installing new water meters throughout the city, about 10,000 customers don’t have new meters and their bills are being estimated based on the city’s average consumption, the letter adds.

Residents can go to JXN Water’s website or call 601-500-5200 to pay their bills, set up a payment plan, or access financial assistance.

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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.