A class-action lawsuit has been brought against the City of Jackson in the city’s ongoing water crisis.
The latest, filed in the Southern District of Mississippi, is brought by Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, the Law Offices of Larry D. Moffett, Kershaw Talley Barlow and Gibbs Travis.
It is the first federal class action lawsuit seeking injunctive relief and monetary damages against “various government and private engineering defendants over the neglect, mismanagement, and maintenance failures that led to an environmental catastrophe leaving more than 153,000 Jackson-area residents without access to safe running water.”
“All families are entitled to clean and safe drinking water,” said Lieff Cabraser partner Mark P. Chalos, who also represents the Plaintiffs in the case. “Government officials turning a blind eye to contaminated water and letting a major American city’s infrastructure crumble into disrepair is neither representing nor caring for its people. This lawsuit seeks to bring justice — and safe, clean water — to the Jackson community.”
As described in the Complaint, the City of Jackson’s water supply has been neglected for decades, culminating in a complete shutdown in August 2022 that left more than 153,000 residents, more than 82% of whom are Black, without access to running water. These residents lacked safe drinking water or water for making powdered baby formula, cooking, showering, or doing laundry.
Back to business:Jackson restaurants making move back to using city water
Drinking water:Will residents drink the water? Three people explain their choices
In March, another challenge was filed on behalf of dozens of children in Mississippi against the City, Mississippi State Department of Health and other entities connected with the capital city’s ongoing water issues.
Although not directly tied to the current water crisis, that lawsuit, one of three filed on behalf of unnamed minor plaintiffs, alleges city and state officials made “conscience-shocking decisions” and showed “deliberate indifference” in their actions that led to children’s exposure to toxic lead and violated their 14th Amendment right of equal protection.
New York law firm Levy Konigsberg filed the lawsuit, bringing in the additional plaintiffs. Among the attorneys handling the three lawsuits is Corey Stern, who successfully argued a similar case in the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.
According to a public notice filed in a 1925 Clarion Ledger newspaper, the lead pipes were installed in the 1920s, making them around 100 years old.
The City has been plagued with water issues that span decades — the result of the City’s failure to properly maintain its water and sewer systems.
In 2015, high levels of lead were found in the city’s drinking water. In 2016, then-public works director Kishia Powell, one of the defendants named in the lawsuits, said the City believed the excessive lead in Jackson homes stemmed from lead plumbing in the houses, especially older ones — not the City’s water system.
“We have every reason to believe this is home-dependent, which means that it is related to the internal plumbing of the home, and that’s largely because we had 58 samples taken, only 13 of them exceeded the actionable level, and there were homes on the same street that were sampled that did not exceed those levels,” Powell said in an earlier story.
Although the health department conducted the study in June 2015 and received the results a month later, department officials did not report the information to the City until January 2016, according to the lawsuit.
City officials knew before 2015 that lead was appearing in the surface water system but were just below the EPA’s actionable level, the lawsuit says.
In late 2013 or early 2014, “then-interim Director of Public Works Willie Bell warned Jackson city officials, including then-Mayor Chokwe Lumumba Sr., of the likely cause of increasing lead in the water: the surface water pH was dangerously acidic, and a lime-feed injection system that should have controlled the corrosive effect of the water was malfunctioning,” the lawsuit says.
“In the spring of 2014, Jackson could have taken corrective measures to combat the rising lead levels in the City’s water. It did not,” the lawsuit claims. “Instead, in the Spring of 2014, then-Mayor of Jackson Tony Yarber disregarded crucial advice from the City’s Interim Director of Public Works, who warned of corrosive water conditions and rising levels of lead in water due to the improper, malfunctioning, and non -functioning treatment of the dangerously low pH surface water from the Pearl River and the Reservoir.”
In a story published in 2021, the Clarion Ledger reported that from June 21, 2015, to May 28, 2021, Jackson sampled its water for lead 1,352 times. Of those samples, 66% contained lead. No amount of lead in drinking water is safe. “Typically, lead does not come from a water body or a drinking water treatment plant. Lead gets into drinking water because older pipes could be made of lead or are connected to each other with lead solder. The lead enters the drinking water when these pipes or fixtures begin to corrode or when the water is acidic (low pH),” the lawsuit quotes from a University of Mississippi report, “Water Quality Challenges in Jackson.”
Since the time lead was discovered in the City’s drinking water, there have been several other incidents that have resulted in boil-water notices and other emergency measures, from a bad batch of chemicals in the water supply and an electrical fire to winter storms that caused some of the City’s pipes to freeze.
The Environmental Protection Agency sent Jackson officials an emergency order over the water system in March 2020 and notices of noncompliance in May 2020 and April 2021.
In 2012, the EPA issued a report on Jackson’s water system, saying, “Jackson’s alleged violations include over 2,300 sanitary sewer overflows, prohibited bypasses, operation and maintenance failures, and effluent limit violations.”
Lici Beveridge contributed to this story.