18 Feb Struggling to Meet EPA Standards: The Story of Jackson
Since 2012, Jackson, Miss. has been watched closely by the EPA Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) due to the horrific condition of the city’s aging infrastructure and sewage overflows.
EPA records that are based on reports sent by the city show that Jackson’s main water treatment facility – Savanna Wastewater Treatment Plant – released almost 3 billion gallons of sewage into the Pearl River last year throughout a six-month period.
To go along with those 3 billion gallons, another 4.5 million gallons of sewage flowed out of manholes or collapsed sewer lines from January through September, eventually making its way to Jackson waterways that flow into the Pearl River.
These amounts are the highest seen within the city since it was put under a consent decree at the end of 2012. The total amount of sewage overflow in 2018, about 3.4 billion gallons, also nears that of the close to 3.9 billion gallons released into the river in 2013.
In an annual report prepared for the city, it concluded that there were many reasons for the increased wastewater overflow.
The number of prohibited bypasses increased in the period March 2017 through February 2018 from the previous 12 months because of hydraulic limitations of piping, storm cells, influent pumping station and other process areas, wastewater cannot always be recovered from the storm cells and must be discharged.
Extreme rainfall hasn’t been a benefit either. In 2018, the city experience the second highest amount of rainfall in more than 100 years. Many cities with that amount of rainfall will start to show their aging infrastructure problems.
In the 2012 decree, Jackson was given 17½ years to make an estimated $400 million in upgrades with the majority of the work to be completed by 2023. At the time of the investigation, the decree found at the system was overwhelmed by the amount of material it could treat. It concluded sewage was being bypassed one out of every eight days.
Problems don’t stop there. In recent years, the EPA has determined the Savanna Wastewater Treatment Plant is noncompliant with the Clean Water Act, where the so-called treated sewage still has high amounts of dissolved oxygen, nitrogen, ammonia and solids that can cause environmental damage to the Pearl River.
Many city officials have stated several factors when it comes to the water and sewage issues, including limited financial resources, staff shortage, equipment infrastructure issues, and a loss of tens of millions of dollars in water billing revenue.
The city’s One Percent Commission has stepped in to help with some of the city’s many collapsed sewer lines, but with an estimated $2.5 billion infrastructure deficit, the city often finds itself forced to perform maintenance instead of more long-term fixes.
Federal officials are monitoring closely, and if Jackson doesn’t live up to its commitments, there could be possible consequences from the EPA and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
The city could be fined from $500 to $2,000 a day for violations of the Clean Water Act.
The worst-case scenario would be the EPA going to court to put the city in receivership, a situation in which the federal agency takes over management of a city’s water and sewer department and makes all financial decisions, including the awarding of contracts and the setting of water and sewer rates. This, in turn, would pretty much be the same as declaring bankruptcy for the city of Jackson.