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Jackson residents claim city’s water woes stem from decades of neglect in new lawsuit

 Walter Houston unloads a case of water bottles donated in Jackson, Mississippi by the Salvation Army to the Mississippi Industries for the Blind, Sept. 2, 2022.
Leslie Gamboni for NPR
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Walter Houston unloads a case of water bottles donated in Jackson, Mississippi by the Salvation Army to the Mississippi Industries for the Blind, Sept. 2, 2022.

A new class-action lawsuit has been filed against Jackson, Mississippi city and public officials, alleging that the recent water crisis that left hundreds of thousands of residents without reliable drinking water for more than a month was caused by decades of neglect and mismanagement.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of Jackson residents on Friday in the U.S. District Court’s Southern District of Mississippi, one day after a city-wide boil water notice was lifted, and announced by attorneys working the case on Monday. The suit names the City of Jackson, Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, former Mayor Tony Yarber, former directors of Public Works Kishia Powell, Robert Miller and Jerriot Smash, and private engineering companies like Siemens Corporation and Trilogy Engineering Services LLC as defendants. Among other things, the plaintiffs are asking for money and a jury trial.

The boil water notice, issued by the Mississippi Department of Health in late July, cited high turbidity, or cloudiness, of water. Residents also dealt with low or no water pressure during that time — aggravated after highly contaminated flood waters from the Pearl River led to a disruption of operations at O.B. Curtis water treatment facility in late August.

But the lawsuit includes claims that the water quality was poor long before the recent pump failure at the city’s main water treatment plant. The case states the water supply was unfit for public consumption due to high levels of lead and other contaminants. It also claims that the water supply has caused personal injury to the plaintiffs including, but not limited to, lead poisoning, income loss, and brain and/or developmental injuries.

“It’s time that the government officials and any other official or company responsible is held accountable, and more importantly that they fix this system and bring clean water to Jackson,” Mark Chalos, the lead counsel for the class-action case, said.

The city of Jackson has yet to issue a response to the lawsuit.

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The new lawsuit is not the only one Jackson is facing. Since late last year, nearly 1,800 claims have been filed on behalf of children affected by lead poisoning. The plaintiffs, represented by the same attorneys who won a settlement in Flint, Michigan’s major case of mass lead poisoning, met with lead attorney Corey Stern and others last week to get an update on the ongoing case.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration among Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama and WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.

Maya Miller is the reproductive health reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom