Attorneys agree to pause federal litigation for water violations in Mississippi's capital

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FILE - Attorney General Merrick Garland, center, listens at a news conference about the Justice Department's intervention to try to bring improvements to the beleaguered water system in Jackson, Miss., at the Justice Department in Washington on Nov. 30, 2022. Attorneys for the federal government, Mississippi and the state's capital city have agreed to request a stay on litigation from a complaint filed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that said the city wasn’t meeting standards for providing reliable drinking water, a Wednesday, May 17, 2023, court filing shows. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Attorneys for the federal government, Mississippi and the state's capital city have agreed to request to delay litigation from a complaint filed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that said the city wasn’t meeting standards for providing reliable drinking water.

In a Wednesday court filing, government attorneys asked for a six-month stay, which would be the second such order. It's part of a broader federal push to fix Jackson's water system, which nearly collapsed last summer and continues to have problems with broken pipes and leaks.

In November, the Justice Department filed a complaint on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that Jackson has failed to provide drinking water reliably compliant with the Safe Drinking Water Act. An agreement between federal officials and the city put that litigation on hold for six months.

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U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate then appointed Ted Henifin, who spent 15 years managing a sanitation district in Virginia, to manage Jackson's water system on an interim basis.

The situation in Jackson required the Justice Department to respond with the “greatest possible urgency,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said after the department announced it would intervene to help improve the water system.

“We realize how horrible the circumstances are there,” Garland said. “It’s hard to imagine not being able to turn on a tap and get safe drinking water.”

Like many American cities, Jackson struggles with aging infrastructure with water lines that crack or collapse. But the problems deepened in late August when most of the city lost running water for several days after heavy rainfall exacerbated problems at the city’s main water treatment plant.

Residents had already experienced periodic boil-water advisories for years. Inspections revealed the water didn't meet safety standards.

Officials in the Democratic-led city say the city’s water problems come from decades of deferred maintenance and underfunding. Republican state leaders say the problems stem from mismanagement at the city level.

If Wingate approves the stay, it will be extended until November. Before that, attorneys would be required to file a joint report that says whether they believe an additional stay is appropriate.

On May 9, Wingate said he also plans on placing Jackson’s sewer system under Henifin's authority. The city agreed to enter a consent decree in 2012 with the EPA to prevent the overflow of raw sewage and bring the city into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Henifin, who was appointed in November, has said he planned to spend one year managing Jackson's water system.

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

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