New Deal?

By ANTHONY WARREN,

City officials working to reduce consent decree costs

A new deal could be in the works when it comes to the capital city’s sewer consent decree. However, that doesn’t mean Jackson will be off the hook when it comes to making some $400 million in repairs to bring its system into compliance with federal law.

The city entered into the decree in 2012 and was given 17.5 years to bring its sewer system into compliance with federal clean water laws.

Five years into the decree, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s staff is working to modify that deal with federal officials.

City leaders discussed efforts at a recent council meeting.

“It’s a case where the consent decree does not match up with our financial ability to deliver. We’re looking to modify (the decree) so we can still meet the goals of the decree, but align it more with the ability of the city … to meet its financial obligations,” said Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine.

The city met recently with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and was given two months to draw up modifications to the plan.

At press time, Jackson had about six weeks remaining to complete the report.

Jackson is eligible to renegotiate the deal, in part, because the city qualifies as an “environmental justice case,” Blaine said.

Over the years, several executive orders have been handed down by presidents related to “environmental justice.”

Terry Williamson, the city’s consent decree attorney, said the orders essentially look at how environmental compliance impacts minority communities.

In Jackson’s case, the EPA and U.S. Department of Justice want more information on how the city’s $400 million decree will affect Jackson’s poorest residents.

Typically, cities raise water and sewer rates to cover consent decree costs, which would place greater strain on lower-income households, he said.

Previously, the EPA determined consent decree amounts, in part, based on the area’s median income. However, that mechanism did not show how those living below the poverty line would be affected, he explained.

The EPA introduced its most recent guidelines in 2014, under former President Barack Obama.

“Instead of focusing on median income (the EPA now focuses) on the lower 20 to 25-percent income levels and looks at what rates (would be necessary to do the work), and what impact (higher rates) would have on those folks,” Williamson explained at the meeting.

 

The EPA has entered into decrees with cities across the country, in part, for reasons similar to the one in Jackson.

Jackson was cited, in part, for the number of sanitary sewer overflows and for problems at the Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Sanitary sewer overflows, or SSOs, occur when wastewater is released into the environment without being treated.

These decrees are federal orders, and usually require local governments to spend hundreds of millions to billions of dollars to bring their sewer systems into compliance.

To pay for the mandates, cities often have to turn to residents by raising water and sewer premiums.

In 2013, Jackson raised its water and sewer rates by 29 and 100 percent respectively to help pay for consent decree costs.

In addition to the $400 million in required spending, Jackson also faces fines for not completing projects by deadline and for continued SSOs.

Other cities also have raised rates to cover consent decree costs. In Kansas City, Mo, combined water, sewer and storm water rates for the city of nearly 490,000 have nearly doubled since 2010 to help pay for its $5 billion consent decree, according to a May 2017 article in the Kansas City Star. 

It was not known if Jackson’s costs would go down, but Williamson said extending the time the city has to comply with the decree could help keep water rates lower.

“Even if the entire amount doesn’t change, if we were given more time to make improvements, it would have a lesser impact,” he said.

 

Engineers with the city’s consent decree program manager, Burns and McDonnell, are drawing up the proposal, Blaine said.

Details of the plan were not known at press time. Renegotiations likely could include changing deadlines for certain milestones to be reached, he said.

“We discussed major and minor modifications. Minor would include the schedule and deliverables, however not a change to the final date,” Blaine told the council. “

Meanwhile, the capital city has a number of deadlines looming. The city had until the end of August to submit its “capacity assurance plan” to the EPA. That plan is needed to determine which portions of the sewer system don’t’ have enough capacity to support new development, Williamson explained.

And next July, the city has to submit the results of its first sanitary sewer evaluation study. This evaluation will determine where breaks are in the system, he explained.

Also, contractors continue to work on a major sludge-hauling contract. The city must remove some 305,000 tons of de-watered waste from the Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant by December 31.

For each day after that date the waste is not removed, the city will face $1,000 a day in fines. In June, about half of the sludge had been removed.

Williamson told the council that the sludge-hauling will likely extend into early 2018. It was not known whether the city will seek an extension on that project as part of negotiations.

 

 

 

 

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