Over the weekend, U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate, who about10 months ago made Ted Henifin the new face of Jackson’s drinking water system, gave Henifin the keys to the city’s sewer system as well.
Wingate, as well as city and state officials, indicated his support in late July for Henifin and his company, JXN Water, to take over the sewer system. The federal government then held a month-long public input period, and received comments from 666 people. Of those comments, the Department of Justice said that 95% supported Henifin taking over the sewer system, 4% were critical and 1% listed as “other.”
After the parties in the case — which include Jackson, the Environmental Protection Agency, the DOJ, and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality — had a chance to review the comments, Wingate officially approved the order on Saturday.
Since 2013, the federal government has held the city’s sewer system under a consent decree over constant infrastructure failures. The consent decree requires Jackson to make certain improvements, yet the city has failed to do most of the required work since then because of a lack of funding, Jackson officials maintain. For years, Jackson has struggled to prevent untreated or partially treated sewage from entering the Pearl River, as well as overflows that form streams along city streets.
“There are about 215 overflows right now across the city, and they’re in neighborhoods where people live close by,” Henifin said in a press release. “It’s just a mess, and we’re going to get at it right away.”
The order is set to last four years, but could end sooner in the case of another consent decree, or if JXN Water completes its assigned list of projects before then. The stipulated order requires JXN Water to submit quarterly reports, and hold public meetings within 30 days of each report.
With the new responsibility, Henifin and JXN Water have a $1.126 million budget for the first year of work, which includes $750,000 for contracting and consultant services, $280,000 for staffing, and $96,000 for Henifin’s compensation.
The new order includes a list of 11 priority projects — listed in Appendix C — for JXN Water to address, which include rehabilitating the city’s wastewater treatment plants and sewer interceptors, as well as making repairs to 215 “emergency sewer” failures throughout the city.
Prior to coming to Jackson and before his work with the U.S. Water Alliance, Henifin led the Hampton Roads Sanitation District in Virginia, which handled wastewater for 1.7 million residents.
The public comments criticizing the new sewer order centered on issues that advocates have raised about Henifin’s work with the drinking water system — which he took over last November through a similar process — such as local contracting and financial transparency.
The sewer system order largely remained the same after review of those comments, but the parties agreed to address transparency concerns by requiring financial disclosure of all accounts that fund sewer projects in the quarterly reports.
In regard to contracting, Henifin said that he intends to seek out local and minority businesses to work on sewer projects. He added that he’ll continue work with the national engineering firm Veolia, which has three years left on its pre-existing contract to operate the city’s wastewater treatment plants.
In the past, city officials estimated that fixing Jackson’s sewer system would cost around $1 billion. Henifin has said he hopes that improvements to the city’s water bill collections will eventually help fund sewer improvements. The order also notes $125 million in available funding through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as $8 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars that will be partially matched by the state.