Jackson’s water plant operators say they’re not being paid overtime, EPA report shows

An assessment of Capital City’s water system conducted in the spring outlines numerous challenges facing the city, including a lack of staffing, old infrastructure, and continued water/sewer billing problems.
This is an aerial view of of the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Plant in Ridgeland, Miss.,...
This is an aerial view of of the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Plant in Ridgeland, Miss., Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.(Steve Helber | AP)
Published: Sep. 2, 2022 at 5:30 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - An assessment of Jackson water submitted to the city just weeks before the system collapse in August sheds new light on staffing issues at the city’s two surface water treatment plants.

On Monday, equipment failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant essentially cut water service for tens of thousands of customers across the city and in Byram.

A review of the city’s water system earlier this year shows that water operators worked overtime without being paid for it and that the city’s decision not to raise pay for maintenance technicians at the plants led to an exodus of workers.

Meanwhile, the utility manager position was vacant due to budget limitations, and there was no succession plan for filling positions at the time evaluators visited the site.

“The budget limitation is no excuse for not having our water treatment plants fully staffed,” Council President Ashby Foote said. “That is not an excuse that flies.”

Foote had not reviewed the report but did answer questions about some of its findings.

A summary of the report was prepared by Process Applications, Inc., out of Fort Collins, Co. Contributing agencies included EPA Region 4, the EPA’s Technical Support Center, and the Mississippi State Department of Health.

Customer complaint data 2011-22, compiled by EPA assessment team
Discolored water complaints have been decreasing in recent years
Water pressure complaints increased since 2014, with a spike in January 2018, during a previous water crisis
Odor complaints increasing on monthly basis since 2016

A team with representatives from the EPA visited Jackson on March 2-3, 2022. The assessment was conducted at the behest of the city.

When asked about the report, EPA provided this statement:

“EPA staff are currently on the ground in Jackson... providing emergency technical support alongside our federal partners. We will soon post updates regarding EPA’s system evaluation and inspection of the city’s water system, which will help inform our work to support a sustainable and equitable water system for Jackson. EPA’s primary focus is to ensure the people of Jackson have access to clean, safe water, and we are committed to working closely with all levels of government to address the water crisis.”

The report states that operator turnover at Jackson’s treatment facilities is high, with operators reporting “instances of working up to 75 hours per week without receiving overtime pay.”

City audits show that the overtime expenses at the Curtis plant have increased from just under $71,000 in 2013 to nearly $210,000 in fiscal year 2021. Those figures do not include amounts for fiscal year 2022, which ends on September 30.

That overtime is needed due to the lack of staffing, with EPA saying “there are insufficient operators to consistently staff three shifts, seven days per week. Staff [are] unable to take time off without forcing [the] remaining staff to work extra hours. Supervisors are working shifts in addition to their managerial responsibilities. Distribution system crews are sparsely staffed and are unable to conduct preventative maintenance.”

Documents submitted to EPA in June showed that just two Certified Class-A operators were in place at O.B. Curtis. The Fewell Plant had five Class-A operators. Ideally, the city should have at least 12 certified operators on staff at both plants to ensure 24-hour-a-day coverage, a requirement under state and federal law.

A WLBT assessment of timesheets between June 1 and July 25 shows that three operators put in more than 200 hours of overtime, while four others logged more than 100 extra hours on the clock.

Meanwhile, plant maintenance technicians, instrument technicians, and distribution staff have quit due to a lack of pay raises.

Foote said he would speak to his fellow council members about the findings regarding a lack of overtime pay. “I think overtime would apply to them [the water operators]. I have to explore that with the human resources department and [the] legal department,” he said. “But that’s not the point. Overtime’s not the solution. The solution is to have a fully-staffed department, so we can fully take care of and manage our water treatment plants.”

At the time of the assessment, Jackson relied on a consultant for operator training and treatment advice.

The lack of staffing also means Jackson does not:

  • Collect and record pressure data, which can be used to determine where improvements are needed and to prevent contamination in the distribution system
  • Routinely flush the distribution system, which can reduce water age and “optimize chlorine residuals”
  • Document valve locations and operational status information, which could result in large areas being impacted by main breaks and low-pressure events
  • Regularly exercise valves and hydrants, something that could cause valves to not be opened or closed when needed

The council approved increasing pay for plant operators by an average of $10,000 a year in November. At its meeting on Tuesday, the council approved more pay raises for public works employees, but it was unclear whether plant maintenance workers were among those increases.

While staffing was an issue, the evaluation team also looked at the city’s distribution system and Water Sewer Billing Administration. Findings show that between 2017 and 2021, line breaks occurred at an average annual rate of 55 breaks per 100 miles of line. “That rate exceeded the Partnership for Safe Water’s recommended goal of 15 breaks per 100 miles,” the report states.

Additionally, the report showed that the majority of the breaks occurred in distinct areas within the city, including North Jackson and the Seneca Street areas, which still have “small-diameter, pre-1910 cast iron pipe still in use.”

On the storage tank side, many tanks have been “cycling infrequently” since 2021, impacting the quality of the water in the tanks. “Average turnover times of less than five days will generally maintain an adequate chlorine residual in the distribution system.”

However, the Forest tank’s average turnover was 42.5 days, the Mill Street tank was 46.6 days and the Cedar Hills tank was 51 days.

While some tanks held water for too long, at least one tank never filled up. “The southernmost elevated storage tank on the surface water distribution system (the Byram tank) has never filled as expected. Startup of a bottling plant near the Byram tank increased demand and caused additional difficulty in filling the tank,” the report states.

Jackson has had less money to deal with these problems, in part, due to complications with its billing system. “Plant administrators indicated that malfunctioning water meters have contributed to a 32 percent decrease in revenue since 2016,” the report states. “While meters are currently being replaced, there is uncertainty about whether the new meters will be capable of communicating with the billing system.”

Water meter replacements began in the city in February. They are being installed as part of a professional services agreement with Sustainability Partners.

In March 2022, about 14,000 customers were still not receiving regular bills. At the time the report was conducted, Jackson was unable to provide a complete list of customers on the water system and could not calculate its collection rate. Those problems are not expected to be resolved until late 2024, the report states.

At its meeting on Tuesday, Mike Secor, a program manager for WSBA, told the council that water/sewer revenues are increasing as Jackson sorts out its billing issues and as more new meters go in. To date, nearly 30,000 new meters have been installed.

Officials say Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba would be available for comment early next week. We will provide details of that discussion when they are available.

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