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‘The Next Flint’ | Suit filed against Jackson, MSDH over lead in drinking water

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Published: Oct. 19, 2021 at 4:09 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Attorneys representing 600 children have filed suit in federal court claiming they had been exposed to lead for years and that the city of Jackson attempted to cover it up.

Tuesday, victims filed a complaint against the city of Jackson, the Mississippi State Department of Health, Trilogy Engineering Services, and numerous current and former city and state officials “for allowing the city’s drinking water to become contaminated with lead.”

The plaintiffs in the case are children living in the capital city who attorneys say have been exposed to lead for years.

The lead attorney in the case is Corey Stern, who was a lead attorney for plaintiffs in the Flint, Michigan water case.

“Flint wasn’t a one-off - it was the canary in the coal mine that opened our eyes to water crises playing out in cities across America,” he said in a news release. “Jackson is yet another tragic and horrifying example of a city failing to do right by its residents and ensure they have clean access to drinking water.”

The suit states that the city learned of its impending lead problem with its well system in 2013 and was warned again in 2014. However, instead of addressing it, the city attempted a quick fix that made the lead problem even worse. Then, the suit alleged that after the city learned of the higher lead levels, it quietly switched back over to the well system. All the time, residents were kept in the dark.

“Tragically, MSDH and Jackson officials failed to warn Jackson’s citizens, including (the plaintiffs)... of the issues with corrosive water from the river/reservoir until January 2016, five months after it was no longer in use.”

The city had attempted to address the problem by switching part of its system off of the well system and onto the Pearl River and Ross Barnett Reservoir. However, that water was far more corrosive than the well water supply, “which caused lead to leach from Jackson’s pipes and lead levels in Jackson’s drinking water to spike.”

Attorneys go on to state that when city leaders learned of the problem, they “took a series of actions that greatly exacerbated the problem.”

In April 2016, the suit claims then-Mayor Tony Yarber brought on a campaign donor, Trilogy Engineering Services LLC “to conduct a water study.” Trilogy was owned by Thessalonian Leblanc, who held “an off-the-books fundraiser” for Yarber during his mayoral run in 2014.

“Leblanc and Trilogy got a sweetheart deal - they were paid nearly as much to analyze the potential crisis as an actual fix to the problem would have cost in 2014,” the suit states. Meanwhile, when confronted, city leaders, including then-Public Works Director Kishia Powell, “downplayed” the public health threat.

“Unsurprising, the crisis in Jackson worsened as Trilogy bungled its response and Jackson persistently refused to take basic actions to ensure its citizens and water users have access to safe, clean drinking water,” the suit states.

“Despite the painfully obvious similarity to the public health crisis in Flint, Michigan at that time, Powell repeatedly downplayed the threat in Jackson and told members of the media and the public that Jackson was no Flint.”

According to the Associated Press, “the Flint water crisis began in 2014 “when the city began taking water from the Flint River without treating it properly, contaminating it with lead.”

Years later, the city continues to struggle with its water issues. In March 2020, the EPA issued an Emergency Administrative Order requiring Jackson to address numerous problems at its water treatment plants.

According to that order, “conditions exist at the system that (presented) an imminent and substantial endangerment to the persons served by the system.”

Federal officials conducted inspections at the O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell water treatment plants in February 2020, at the behest of the state health department. At the time, the city had failed to provide proper reports to the Mississippi State Department of Health for nearly three years.

Among findings, EPA determined that equipment at both plants was not properly calibrated to “provide accurate dosing for proper treatment of drinking water.” In other words, the city could not determine whether it was putting the accurate amount of chemicals in the water being treated.

Inspectors also found that monitoring equipment at O.B. Curtis had not been repaired or calibrated in three years after a technician position at the plant had been vacated. Respondents also were unable to perform membrane integrity tests and had failed to perform filter maintenance at both plants.

Like in the previous instance, city leaders were criticized for not making details of the EPA order public.

In late June, the city council approved an administrative order giving EPA greater oversight in the city’s efforts to bring its water system into compliance with federal law.

Attorneys claim their clients, as well as other residents, have had to struggle to find clean drinking water and that the city has violated their due process rights “including the fundamental right to bodily integrity.”

“(The) plaintiff has also sustained violations of substantive due process rights, including the fundamental right not to have the state create, inflict and/or exacerbate dangers through the culpable actions of public officials.”

As for the health impacts, attorneys say their clients will “forever suffer cognitive deficits” as a result.

Plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Officials with the city of Jackson and MSDH declined to comment.

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