A group of Jackson, Mississippi, residents has hit public officials and engineering firms with a federal proposed class action over a water treatment plant shutdown last month that left more than 150,000 without access to clean water in the mostly Black city.Four residents who say their lead poisoning, E. coli, dehydration or other ailments were due to flaws and failures in the city's water system are leading the suit, filed in Mississippi federal court on Friday, which accuses the city of violating 14th Amendment protections for bodily integrity.
Officials on Thursday lifted a boil-water advisory that had been in place for Jackson residents since late July. When the city's largest water treatment plant failed in August, Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency and called in the Mississippi National Guard to distribute more than 11 million bottles of water to residents. Jackson is 82% Black, and nearly a quarter of its residents live in poverty.
"It has been years since Jackson residents have had access to clean, safe water free of contaminants," said Mark Chalos of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, who represents the residents. "Families, children, sick people and students in schools have been exposed to water that's unsafe to consume."
The suit seeks to represent a class of anyone exposed to the city's water system since Jan. 1, 2009.
The lawsuit does not name state officials as defendants, although Chalos said counsel are still investigating.
The suit seeks to force the city to replace and repair lead pipes and other flawed infrastructure, deliver safe water to residents until problems are resolved and stop charging residents for using contaminated water, in addition to damages.
The lawsuit names the city of Jackson, Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba; former Mayor Tony Yarber; and three former directors of public works, Kishia Powell, Robert Miller and Jerriot Smash. The complaint also accuses engineers Siemens Corp., Siemens Industry Inc. and Trilogy Engineering Services LLC of negligence for their work on the city's water system.
The city of Jackson declined to comment on the lawsuit Monday. Representatives for the defendants could not be reached for comment.
The plaintiffs are residents who have relied on the city's water system for daily life and suffer a range of problems such as headaches.
One plaintiff, Priscilla Sterling, a high school teacher, and her family used Jackson's water for years. Several of her children have lead poisoning, and the family routinely has episodes of unexplained itching and other problems, according to the suit.
State and federal authorities have long questioned the safety of Jackson's antiquated water system. Cast iron water pipes running under the city's streets have a band of lead every 20 feet, which can cause a range of health problems, particularly among children, the suit says.
Jackson's water is acidic, corroding pipes and causing lead to leach into the water, according to the suit. Runoff contamination from the state's active surface mining industry likely contributes to acidity in the city's water sources, it says.
Another suit against the city and top officials for exposing residents to lead contamination came in October. Among other claims, that suit says city officials in 2014 switched from well water to surface water in the Pearl River and Ross Barnett Reservoir as a quick fix that worsened the lead problem.
Friday's lawsuit claims Jackson's water system has violated the Safe Drinking Water Act and federal limits on lead and copper for years. As recently as 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency identified a risk of E. coli, cryptosporidium and giardia contamination in the city's water.
By the time the main water pumps at the city's main facility, the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, failed in July, the plant had had decaying equipment for years that left it "structurally fragile," according to the lawsuit. Poor monitoring systems and underqualified, inadequate staff contributed to the system's problems, the plaintiffs claim.
The EPA cited the city for failing to maintain a monitoring system for three years because it had not hired a technician to work on the equipment during that time, the residents argue.
As of June 29, 2021, Jackson employed only two full-time operators and one part-time staffer at its Curtis plant, and five full-time staff members at a second city plant — compared with a total staff of about 12 in previous years, according to the suit.
With the main pumps at the Curtis plant offline, the city switched to a backup pump that had many of the same problems, according to the suit. On Aug. 29, the pump failed, leaving the entire city without running water.
On Thursday, city officials said they had restored water pressure to the Curtis plant and had lifted the boil water notice issued in July.
But officials said the city was still seeing "isolated reports" of discolored water or poor water pressure. The city noted a team of emergency operators, mechanics and technicians from South Carolina, Michigan, Maryland and Ohio were staffing city water plants.
City Leaders Knew of Problems, Suit Says
City leaders were aware for years that acidity in the water was causing lead contamination, but failed to address the problem, the residents argue.
Officials, for instance, have issued numerous boil water notices to residents since 2016. Boiling water, however, simply concentrates contamination, because lead does not boil off. The suit calls the strategy "dangerously ignorant."
State testing in 2015 had found 13 of 58 homes sampled in Jackson had lead levels above federal limits, a proportion higher than the homes with notorious too-high lead levels in Flint, Michigan, at the time.
Although state officials did not tell the public about their findings, city officials knew about the results, according to the lawsuit.
In January 2016, Powell, the former public works director, told the public that the test results showed the city's water was safe and that Jackson wasn't violating the Safe Drinking Water Act, the residents argue.
"We are nowhere near the levels seen in Flint," Powell said at the time, a statement the residents argue was false. Yarber, likewise, told the public, "We're not Flint," the suit says.
Even so, the Mississippi State Department of Health in February 2016 required Jackson to develop a plan to address its violations of the Lead and Copper Rule, a federal limit on the amount of lead and copper allowed in public drinking water.
At the same time, testing at one home in Jackson found a lead level 30 times the EPA's limits. Other homes also produced lead levels far higher than federal standards, according to the suit.
After a city engineer-in-training in February 2016 found lead materials in city infrastructure during a water replacement job, he told a local reporter about his findings. Previously, the city had blamed lead in the water on poor infrastructure in individual homes.
After a local newspaper reported the engineer's story, Powell fired him for "possibly creating unwarranted public fear," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit argues public officials would go on to deny the city had a problem with lead for years, with another public works director, Miller, telling the public in 2018 that the city's water was safe to drink.
In March 2020, the EPA issued an order identifying problems with the water system that presented an "imminent and substantial" danger to residents who relied on city water. The order identified a range of problems with the water system, including a monitoring system that hadn't worked in years.
The city, however, didn't disclose the results of the order to the public until a year later, the residents argue.
Attempted Fixes Made Things Worse
The lawsuit also accuses Trilogy Engineering Services of making problems with the city's water system worse when it was hired to develop a plan for lead and copper contamination.
In response to a state mandate to fix its lead problem, the Jackson City Council in April 2016 approved a $291,989 contract with Trilogy to draw up solutions.
According to the lawsuit, Thessalonian LeBlanc, a part owner of the firm, held an undisclosed fundraiser for Yarber, who was running for mayor, in 2014. Reached by phone Monday, LeBlanc called the allegation "foolishness."
She told Law360 that Philip Gibson, a former part owner and chief engineer at the firm, was responsible for the water system's failure." That's where the focus should be," she said.
Gibson now works at another engineering firm, Neel-Schaffer Inc., managing its Central Mississippi Water/Wastewater division. He joined Neel-Schaffer in 2018, according to the company's website. He did not respond to messages seeking comment.
At the time, the city was using lime powder to prevent corrosion in underground pipes, which caused "persistent clogging," to an extent that Jackson used above-ground hoses to transport water. The city's water system was designed for liquid lime, not powdered lime, according to the suit.
Gibson suggested the city could use another material, soda ash, to make the water less acidic as it left treatment plants and prevent corrosion. The city ultimately adopted Gibson's recommendation.
In 2018, however, the city learned using soda ash led to even more problems. The material, when combined with Mississippi's high humidity, formed "rock-like clumps" that the water system couldn't process.
"Trilogy knew or should have known that soda ash would likely clump and clog the pipes and pumps, thereby jamming the feed and rendering the corrosion control method essentially inoperative and non-functional," the lawsuit says.
A No-Bid Contract in the Spotlight
The complaint traces many of the problems with the city's water system to a 2013 no-bid contract with engineering firm Siemens.
In 2010, Siemens urged the city to hire it to fix the water system, promising $120 million in "guaranteed savings" with "no risk."
The city in 2013 ultimately approved a $94.5 million bond measure to hire the company — a contract that would cost the city more than $200 million through 2041 with interest. The lawsuit accuses Siemens of manipulating city officials to get the contract without going through a competitive bidding process.
Siemens did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The company claimed installing a network of 20,000 water sensors would improve the city's ability to monitor water usage and increase its fee revenue. Instead, Siemens installed the sensors incorrectly and failed to properly pair them with a new billing system. The suit accuses the company of concealing and failing to fix the problems with the sensors.
Siemens also hired a series of "sham contractors" to work on the water system that disguised the work actually being performed and concealed the company's failure to comply with city requirements to hire minority-owned contractors, according to the suit.
Ultimately, Siemens' work prevented the city from properly charging for water service, depriving the system of $175 million in revenue. The lost revenue destroyed the city's credit rating and frustrated its ability to operate the system and finance new projects.
Jackson in 2020 reached a $90 million settlement with Siemens over its performance on the project. But after attorney fees and other expenses, the settlement didn't leave the city with enough money to repair the damage the company caused to its water network, the suit argues.
The plaintiffs are represented by Robert L. Gibbs of Gibbs Travis PLLC, Mark P. Chalos of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, Stuart C. Talley of Kershaw Talley Barlow PC, and Larry Moffett of the Law Office of Larry D. Moffett PLLC.
Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available.
The case is Sterling et al. v. Jackson, Mississippi et al., case number 3:22-cv-00531, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.
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