JACKSON — After decades of neglecting its sewer system, the city of Jackson soon will face a staggering bill to rebuild it properly.
The Jackson City Council could authorize soon a deal with the Environmental Protection Agency in which the city would agree to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on sewer upgrades and pay a sizable fine for violating federal clean water laws.
The city and the EPA are refusing to discuss the terms publicly until the accord is signed.
Negotiations have been ongoing for two years now between the EPA and the city of Jackson, which like many cities nationwide has drawn federal scrutiny for its outdated sewer system.
The city’s exact violations of the Clean Water Act have not been made public, but Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. said they run the gamut.
There are problems treating sewage at the Savanna Wastewater Treatment Plant.
There are occasional overflows caused by line breaks and other problems that have been known to spew sewage into yards.
And the stormwater runoff system is fundamentally flawed. Today, stormwater in Jackson drains directly into sewage pipes, contaminating water that entered the sewer essentially clean.
Johnson said the work needed to fix everything will touch “just about all of the components” of the sewer system, including collection lines, force mains and the treatment and disposal systems.
The price tag has not been revealed, but previously city officials have estimated the needs at hundreds of millions of dollars.
To pay for them, “the city’s on its own,” Johnson said.
There’s no grant money available from the EPA, and a $25 million water and sewer grant the city was awarded in 2007 was never appropriated. And now it can’t be, because of a congressional ban on earmarks.
Instead, the city will rely heavily on a combination of low-interest loans from the state and — probably — rate increases. The city also will take another whack at getting a sales tax initiative to its liking through the state Legislature, a proposal that’s been revised or killed in11th hour negotiations each of the last two years.
Other cities have faced similar decrees, including Chattanooga, Tenn. ($250 million of work, $476,000 fine), South Bend, Ind. ($509.5 million of work, $88,000 fine), and Kansas City, Mo. ($2.5 billion of work, $600,000 fine).
St. Louis faced the most severe of the bunch; its 2011 decree called for $4.7 billion of work over 23 years and a $1.2 million fine.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors has complained these decrees amount to an unfunded mandate, and Johnson agrees.
“We recognize that the Clean Water Act was put in place to improve the environment and quality of living of people in this county, but that’s a federal policy. That’s not a local policy,” Johnson said. “It’s not fair to expect that local governments alone shoulder the burden of implementing this policy.”
The EPA might counter that the law is 40 years old this year; cities have had time to comply.
“This is an example of the chickens coming home to roost,” said Councilman Quentin Whitwell.
“The bottom line is that the city of Jackson is not being a good steward of the environment by virtue of the fact that we have not put in the time, effort, money and attention to maintaining our infrastructure for water, sewer — and roads, for that matter.
“It’s forcing our hands to do a rebuild, which is what we should’ve done a long time ago,” he said.
Council President Tony Yarber said he does not plan to put the consent decree to a vote this week and instead wants to vet it in committee.
Johnson said he “welcomes a full discussion.” But “I don’t know how open it can be — the EPA is kind of persnickety about that.”
The agreement — whatever it is — seems likely to earn council approval for the simple reason that the EPA could impose even harsher penalties if the city doesn’t sign.
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