Last week southern District Federal Judge Henry Wingate held a “status hearing” in his courtroom on the Jackson water situation.
I sat through the three and a half hour hearing and learned a lot. One of the things I learned is that Judge Wingate is clearly calling the shots and Mayor Lumumba is not.
Wingate, age 76, is a Jackson native, was graduated from Yale Law School in 1972. He was a special assistant Mississippi attorney general, a law professor at Mississippi College School of Law, a lieutenant in the Navy Legal Services Office and then an assistant U. S. Attorney.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan appointed him a federal district judge and he has served in that capacity ever since.
It was a fascinating hearing for those interested in government. The United States has a unique form of government involving a complex interaction of federal, state, county and city governing bodies.
Thanks in part to the foresight of our founding fathers over two centuries ago, there is a complex system of checks and balances to make sure bad government is rooted out.
Water management is the domain of the most local aspect of our government, the city. But the Safe Drinking Water Act, passed by the U. S. Congress in 1974, gives ultimate authority to the federal government to regulate cities and ensure they provide safe drinking water.
After Jacksonians went months without safe drinking water, the feds intervened. The federal Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit which ended up in Wingate’s court. A settlement resulted between the EPA, Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality, Mississippi’s Department of Health, Jackson and other entities.
The settlement created, for the first time ever, a federal water czar, Ted Henifin, to take over and fix Jackson’s water system. Henifin reports to Wingate, whose job it is to oversee the enactment of the settlement.
Once Henifin was in place and Lumumba out, the feds were comfortable enough to designate $800 million or so to address Jackson’s water woes. This would be a manna from heaven.
This first “status hearing” was prompted when Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, who now has been relegated to the sidelines, held a press conference to announce $100,000 in free water filters to pregnant women and mothers of children under four years old.
Judge Wingate had a recording of the press conference played in his courtroom. Although Lumumba never outright said the Jackson water was unsafe, the whole appearance of handing out filters implied there was something wrong with the Jackson water. That got Henifin’s goat and apparently Wingate’s as well. So they basically called Lumumba on the carpet to explain.
The end result was that Wingate, in federal court, established that the Jackson drinking water is safe. He got both Henifin and Lumumba to state so for the record. Safe for everyone, including pregnant women, infants and small children.
The more subtle message from Wingate to Lumumba was this: Stay out of the water business. No more grandstanding press s You have been banished to the sidelines. Stay there.
A big part of the problem are these constant notices from the Department of Health mailed to Jacksonians about possible lead and copper in the water. The hearing ended with Henifin promising to find out if these notices are really necessary as they scare the bejeebers out of citizens and destroy their confidence in the purity of Jackson water.
I have long ignored these notices, having fully comprehended their nature. Unfortunately, these notices have caused tens of thousands of Jacksonians to needlessly spend thousands of dollars on bottled water.
Here’s the skinny: There is no dangerous lead or copper levels in Jackson water. Constant tests involving hundreds of homes confirm this. Jackson water meets all EPA standards including lead and copper standards.
The notices are sent out because pH levels in Jackson water often exceed the very narrow parameters imposed by the EPA. If just one pH water sample is too acidic, the notices have to go out. Acidic water is not in the least harmful to drink. But acidic water can cause lead and copper pipes to erode, thus the warnings.
So these notices are a warning that something dangerous could possibly happen even though another whole set of tests proves that it’s not happening.
This is called the law of unintended consequences. In an attempt to be super strict on its water quality standards, the EPA and the Mississippi Department of Health have caused needless fear and economic costs on the public.
The simple solution is to fix the problem and Henifin is working on it and vowed to get the pH levels stabilized. This is done by adding alkaline chemicals such as lime or soda ash. Wingate and Henifin were also worried that Lumumba’s discussion of these additives would cause more fear if people thought these harmless chemicals were somehow dangerous.
The fact of the matter is the First Amendment protection of free speech gives Lumumba the ultimate right to say what he wants. But the City of Jackson is a party to the settlement, so Wingate has a big stick. It will be interesting to see if Lumumba gets with the program or not.
All of this was done very tactfully. Wingate was a perfect gentleman throughout the hearing and bent over backwards to be civil and polite to the mayor. Nevertheless, he made his purpose and power clear as a bell.
Another thing is clear: Henifin has the complete support of Wingate at this point in time. This is well deserved. Henifin is making amazing progress. That’s what a half-million-dollar-a-year man can do with almost unlimited funds. If Lumumba had hired Henifin in the first place, Lumumba would be a hero and a political star.
Other big news from the hearing: Looks like Henifin is going to get control of the sewer system. Already 40 out of 250 sewer overflows have been repaired. Henifin estimated he could have them all repaired within two years. He also estimated the total cost to repair Jackson’s sewer system was $130 to $200 million — far lower than previous estimates.
Also revealed was that Wingate has been hands-on, touring the water plant, the sewer overflows and water leaks in the field with Henifin.
One tour included the massive 5,000,000 gallons a day leak near the old Colonial Country Club which has now been fixed for $2 million — about what the leak was costing the city in just one year. Fixing that one leak increased the city water capacity by 10 percent.
That monumental leak, which started in 2017, had created a 35-foot pristine lake. It’s now dry, Wingate informed the court, apologizing to any disappointed fishermen.