With Jackson and its citizens burdened with a $4 million consent decree to fix its sewer system, it was already going to be a tough hill to climb.
From the $91 million Siemens contract, which had a portion set aside for work that would help the city come closer to the U.S. EPA settlement, to the consolidated infrastructure master plan from the 1-percent sales tax commission. Now comes a new, unexpected challenge from the east—the West Rankin Utility Authority and its recently approved plan to build a roughly wastewater treatment center.
Legally speaking, the consent decree is a 2012 settlement between the City of Jackson and environmental regulatory agencies over violations of the federal Clean Water Act. Jackson operates three wastewater treatment plants that also treat sewage from surrounding cities.
Although Jackson is the sole defendant named in the consent decree, City Council President De'Keither Stamps' view says its customers, including WRUA, had a hand in creating the problem.
"We have to pay for the region causing this problem," Stamps said. "But Jackson is stuck holding the bag. I believe that's disingenuous."
On April 13, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality approved the permit application from the WRUA to build a $125 million sewer-treatment plant on the banks of the Pearl River.
The City of Jackson will ask state regulators for a formal evidentiary hearing to contest the approval of a wastewater treatment plant in west Rankin County. Shelia Byrd, the spokeswoman for Mayor Tony Yarber, said the hearing is similar to a trial, where officials will testify about details of their plan.
Currently, the authority pays Jackson in the ballpark of $5 million to treat wastewater from several Rankin County cities. All together, Jackson makes more than $43 million from its wastewater business, whose customers also include the City of Ridgeland and Madison County.
Pulling out of Jackson's system would not only be a blow to the capital city's budget, but it would result in higher sewer bills for ratepayers on both sides of the river, officials with Jackson have argued.
"There are people on that side of the fence who say this is not a good idea, either," Stamps said. "Hopefully, cooler heads and lesser egos will prevail."
The Madison County Journal reported Wednesday that officials in Ridgeland, which is also a Jackson customer, fear that the loss of Rankin customers could mean higher bills for ratepayers in Madison.
Mike McCollum, Ridgeland's public works director, told the Journal: "A lot of people really aren't sure because Jackson is going through this consent decree with the EPA, and we don't know if West Rankin is going to be liable for any repairs going forward even if they construct their own."
Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee adds that the city is also a member of the Madison County Wastewater Authority, which operates a treatment plan at Beattie's Bluff on the Big Black River. McGee, who is chairman of the authority, said being a member gives Ridgeland options, but that giving the city's business to Jackson is the cheapest option, economically speaking.
"Right now, it would be best to go south," McGee told the Jackson Free Press. "It can get expensive to pump wastewater to other areas."
It's uncertainty about Jackson that WRUA officials say motivates them to build their own plant. Specifically, wastewater customers have complained that the city's Savanna Street waste-treatment plant is not up to current U.S. EPA standards, that Jackson puts off needed maintenance, that sewer-treatment rates have risen significantly, and that the city has failed to maintain customer service and communication with clients.
In a statement sent to the Jackson Free Press in February, WRUA President and Pearl Mayor Brad Rogers laid out the authority's position.
"The reasons for building our own wastewater treatment plant are many. These include a bill from Jackson that has more than doubled in the last year and will continue with such increases as Jackson attempts to fix the neglected 45-year-old Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant. It also includes Jackson's position that only the City of Jackson is the correct entity to manage a regional wastewater plant," Rogers wrote.
In 2011, the WRUA applied for a permit to build its own plant. At a permit hearing in February, attorneys for Jackson argued that another wastewater plant on the Pearl River would be tantamount to "deregionalization" when federal environmental agencies require regions to consolidate resources as much as possible.
Jackson also claims that the WRUA plan would violate U.S. EPA regulations for clean water and total maximum daily load allocations for nitrogen and phosphorous. Chris Pomeroy of Richmond, Va.-based AquaLaw, whom the city brought in for the sole purpose of preparing for the meeting, argued that the proposed facility violates MDEQ's rules about avoiding new discharges and encouraging regionalism.
Because Jackson's utility is a regional system, adding new plants would mean a move away from regionalism, in opposition to the state's own regulations.
Keith Turner, an attorney for WRUA, told the Jackson Free Press that his clients expected that Jackson would seek an evidentiary hearing and feel confident that they will prevail. Turner added that the hearing would also shed more light on cost forecasts from both Jackson and WRUA, which has become one of the main sticking points.
WRUA is skeptical of Jackson's claims of how much it will cost to upgrade the Savanna Street plant, which vacillated between $125 million and, as of Monday's MDEQ meeting, $250 million, Turner said in an interview.
From Jackson's view, WRUA lowballed the price tag for the new facility at $125 million. Jackson thinks the plant will cost more than $3 million more, which would raise WRUA customer rates.
That hearing likely would not place before the fall, but Turner said WRUA could start engineering and design work in the meantime. McGee, the Ridgeland mayor, said the best solution would be to have a true regional wastewater authority. Jackson officials have balked at that idea, saying that the capital city is already a regional provider.
Echoing the argument of WRUA officials, McGee said: "In a true regional authority, you would have a regional board. As it is right now, Jackson controls the entire system."
Read more about the city' of Jackson's water infrastructure challenges and comment at www.jfp.ms/water.