JACKSON Ward 4 Councilman De’Keither Stamps walked out of Wednesday night’s special Jackson City Council meeting after failing to get support for a state of emergency over lead pipes in Jackson homes.
Stamps said he wanted to call attention to the financial difficulty of south Jackson residents to replace outdated lead pipes after the State informed the City in January of lead in water in a number of homes. The City, he noted, does not have the money to provide for filters to the homes that might have lead in their water. His solution, then, was to “ring a bell” to find sources for the funding to fix the lead issue at its source: the pipes in the homes. Although other members of the council, including the mayor, voiced their reluctance to create an uproar with a state of emergency, Stamps said he felt it necessary to get assistance.
“If I have to scare people to get resources to Jackson,” Stamps said before calling for a vote, “I am willing to do that.”
Mayor Tony Yarber retraced the actions the City has taken on the issue, starting with when the State informed the City about the lead in the water, to when they “knocked on doors” to address the problem, and then to the retesting currently in progress. He reiterated that the source of Jackson’s water and the systems that provide the water are both testing clean.
“What we do know,” Yarber said, “is that over 70 percent of the homes in Jackson were built before 1978.” He added that his administration is waiting “for data to be analyzed between the City and the Mississippi Department of Health.”
Yarber acknowledged that a majority of the homes with lead were in south Jackson, where some might not have the capability to replace their pipes. “We see a lot of clay crumbling in people’s homes,” he said.
Old pipes were not the only concern. The mayor mentioned more than once the delay in time between the testing that happened in the summer of 2015 and the notification the City received in early January. “We have some concerns about timeliness of reporting,” the mayor said.
This led to an open discussion among council members about bringing in outside agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. And it all centered on finding financial support to assist those living in south Jackson.
“We need to work down to the individual homes, to the source of the problem,” Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote said. “And we need to solicit help from the resources that are available at the state level to get to the bottom of the problem.”
Stamps agreed with Foote, saying that’s why he wanted to declare a state of emergency.
“And that’s all I am proposing here, that we ‘ring the bell’ about the specific issue as it relates to people’s homes,” Stamps said. “And also ask for the EPA, USDA and HUD to do specific things to the area as we discover people’s homes that have the bad plumbing. And get resources for those people to help solve some of their problems. That’s why I want to declare a civil emergency.”
Yarber then emphasized that the issue is likely over pipes in private homes. “The system is not the issue,” he said.
“As we find more homes that are compromised,” Stamps clarified, “then we can directly target those people’s homes.”
Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman then called to move on from the issue, stating that it was a “long-term problem.”
“We will not be able to solve it all today,” Tillman said.
Council President Melvin Priester Jr., of Ward 2, attended by teleconference because he was out of town. He responded to the proposed declaration with caution.
“It would hurt the city more than it would help at this time,” Priester said, indicating that it might cause undue alarm without adequate explanation. “I don’t think it is the right approach at this time.”
Public Works Director Kishia Powell spoke to the council about the steps her department is advising citizens to take to protect themselves, specifically emphasizing the installation of filters at the tap. She confirmed that the state health department would not be providing filters to the public. “So that would be the responsibility of the homeowner,” Powell said.
Councilman Hendrix then asked Powell to request such assistance from the state.
“At what point do we (act)?” Stamps asked, again pushing for a declaration of a state of civil emergency.
The mayor seemed more worried about “sounding the wrong alarm.”
“My support has been about the state of our infrastructure, period,” Yarber said. “… I think this is a train that could potentially get away from us. We declare an emergency, and then people say, OK, now we are Flint.”
The mayor said he was worried about comparisons between Jackson and Flint, Mich. “We are not even close to being Flint, because this is an issue that people are dealing with in their homes,” he said.
He added, “It is going to be harder to explain (declaring an emergency over lead pipes) then it is to explain how even though we are out filling potholes every day, that we still have 3 million potholes to go.”
For Stamps, though, it all went back to finding the money to help those in south Jackson. “There are only two ways to fix this problem: if the homeowner replumbs their whole house, or there is some kind of filtration device connected to the inlet of the house on their side of the water meter to purify the water after a true assessment of their water is complete,” he said. “I don’t think the folks of south Jackson have the economic ability to buy a filtration system for the whole house.”
After the discussion, Stamps called for a second to his motion for an emergency declaration. When met with silence from the rest of the council, the motion failed.
“We just showed the people of Jackson how we feel about them,” Stamps said before excusing himself from the rest of the meeting.
Email city reporter Tim Summers Jr. at [email protected]freepress.com. See more local news at jfp.ms/localnews.