By Othor Cain
In a heated exchange during a special council meeting Monday, Oct. 8, council members voted 3-2 agreeing to spend in the neighborhood of $400 million to rebuild its sewage system and pay a fine. This is part of the consent decree provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
All of the details involving the decree – including the amount of time the city will have to finish the work and the cost of the fine – remain secret, pending Mayor Harvey Johnson’s signature and the filing of the decree in court.
The consent decree is a legal agreement the EPA negotiates with cities, businesses or individuals when they violate federal laws. They typically include a fine and a requirement that the entity spend money (usually a lot of it) to fix whatever is causing the problem.
The EPA has been negotiating for years with the city over the decree, after learning, among other things, that Jackson frequently bypasses sewage treatment at its Savanna Street plant, dumping much of it into the Pearl River with only rudimentary chlorine treatment. That also violates its permit with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, which fined Jackson $240,000 in 2010.
On top of that, every time it rains, storm water seeps into the city’s sewage lines, many of which are riddled with holes. The crumbling lines have contributed to hundreds of sewage overflows into backyards and creeks in the last few years, in addition to flooding the treatment plant with more wastewater than it can treat.
Council President Tony Yarber, Ward 1 Councilman Quentin Whitwell and Ward 7 Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon voted for the decree. Councilmen Chokwe Lumumba and Frank Bluntson – both mayoral candidates – opposed it.
Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman abstained and Ward 3 Councilwoman LaRita Cooper-Stokes was absent.
Yarber, who was under the impression that the vote had failed, blasted Bluntson and Lumumba for voting against the decree calling their votes “irresponsible.”
“This is not a very responsible situation,” Yarber said. “I‘ll just say that on the record, because we are being held accountable. We’ve seen one (lawsuit) with our names on it, Mr. Bluntson, and we’ll soon see another as a result of this.”
Yarber later apologized for his comment, but not before Bluntson had a chance to publicly respond. “I think the chair should not have said a colleague’s vote was irresponsible,” Bluntson said. “That person represents a ward, just like you, and he represents the people, and they’ve got concerns. I think that person is expressing the concerns of his constituents.”
Bluntson maintains that during deliberations including executive sessions it was not explained to him how the city would pay for the decree. “They didn’t explain to me where they’re going to get the money from,” Bluntson said. “How are you going to vote for something when you don’t even know whether the citizens are going to get a big tax raise, or you’re going to raise the water bill?”
Johnson dismissed the notion that the system had been neglected.
“We’ve spent about $70 million since 1997 on our sewer system alone. We spent another $155 million on our water system,” Johnson said. “So we’ve actually spent a lot of money, probably more money than has been spent total by anyone in the state of Mississippi. But we still have those standards that we have to meet.”