MarathonBy ANTHONY WARREN,
Efforts to renegotiate decree long process officials say
Efforts to renegotiate the city of Jackson’s sewer consent decree are a marathon, not a sprint, according to Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine.
“This process will take over a year – a long-term work that we’re doing here,” he said.
In August, the administration told the Jackson City Council that it was planning to renegotiate its consent decree with federal officials. The goal is to have a “major modification” of the current decree, to give Jackson additional time to meet consent decree requirements, Blaine said.
The city entered into the decree in 2012, and agreed to spend $400 million to bring its sewer system into compliance with federal clean water laws.
Since then, decree costs have soared to between $600 million and $800 million – a large amount for the cash-strapped city.
The agreement was signed off on by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Justice and filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District.
Officials with the Lumumba administration are planning to step up talks with the federal government now that the city’s new public works director is in place.
On October 16, Bob Miller took the reins of the department, replacing interim director Jerriot Smash.
“Now that Mr. Miller is on the ground, we will be setting up our initial discussions with the EPA in the near future, and we will be taking a trip to Atlanta,” Blaine said.
Atlanta is where EPA Region Four is headquartered.
Region Four serves Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, the EPA Web site states.
Blaine said Miller has experience working on decrees, including one in Louisville, Ky. The city of 597,000 has spent nearly a billion dollars on consent decree work since 2005, according to a 2016 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Louisville was given 19 years to clean up its sewer issues, compared to the 17.5 years given to Jackson.
“He (Miller) was a major part of the team (in Louisville) that was a national example on how to work with consent decrees and improve what they were doing with water and sewer to provide better service to constituents,” Blaine said. “He is better published than most professors I know.”
Miller previously served as deputy director of the sewerage and water board of New Orleans and the director of strategic services for Municipal and Financial Services Group, a consulting firm that helped Louisville with water and sewer, according to Miller’s LinkedIn page.
The administration met with the EPA and Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) earlier this year, and was told that it could be eligible to renegotiate the decree because the city qualifies as an “environmental justice case.”
Over the years, several executive orders have been handed down by presidents of the United States related to “environmental justice.”
Terry Williamson, a deputy city attorney who has helped with the consent decree, told the council that the orders look at how environmental compliance impacts minority communities.
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.
he EPA has entered into decrees with cities across the country, in part, for reasons similar to the one in Jackson.
Jackson was cited 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.
Meanwhile, the city has made significant strides on the consent decree.
Jackson has wrapped up work on the fifth phase of the West Bank Interceptor Rehabilitation Project (The interceptor is a major sewer line that runs along the west bank of the Pearl River.) and is expected to meet its December 31 deadline for hauling sludge from the Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant.
So much sludge had collected there over the years, that it had significantly reduced the plant’s capacity to treat wastewater during peak flow times.
Additionally, the city plans to implement a new program in early 2018 reduce the amounts of FOG – fats, oils and grease – going into the sewer system.
Oftentimes, restaurants will dump the materials into the system, tying up lines and causing sewerage to back up.
“We are implementing the FOG program hopefully in the second quarter (of the fiscal year). The city has five trucks that it will use to clean existing materials in the sewer lines, and will begin working closer with restaurants to make sure FOGS are properly disposed of.
“We want to be more of a partner with commercial kitchens – to find solutions that are mutually beneficial.”