Q&A: How Ted Henifin plans to fix Jackson’s water system

JACKSON, Miss. — The supervisor appointed by the U.S. Department of Justice to assist fix the long-troubled water system in Mississippi’s capital has an expansive record of reforms on his plate. Over one year, Ted Henifin intends to make substantial progress on all of them.

Henifin will spend the following year managing Jackson’s water system after the Justice Department received a federal decide’s approval to perform a uncommon intervention to fix the town’s water system, which partially failed in late August. People waited in strains for the water to drink, bathe, cook dinner and flush bogs. Many nonetheless do not belief the water sufficient to drink it and have not for years.

Henifin, who spent 15 years managing a sanitation district in Virginia, has been chosen because the determine to shepherd Jackson by way of a spread of technological, authorized and political challenges as the town makes an attempt to build a water system that serves its residents for the lengthy haul.

Henifin spoke to The Associated Press about a number of the key questions he’ll face over the following year as he makes an attempt to tackle the components that gave rise to the Jackson water disaster. His responses have been edited for brevity and readability.

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Q: After arriving in Jackson on Sept. 14 amid the partial collapse of the town’s water system, you stayed for 2 weeks after which returned once more in October and November. During these visits, you say you felt a reference to folks in Jackson. Why did you’re feeling that connection, and what did group members relay to you about what they had been experiencing on the bottom?

A: I’d work together with people once I was in the neighborhood. And frankly, the connection was over how they shouldn’t have to stay like this. People have largely given up on the consuming water in Jackson. The folks I’m speaking to didn’t cease consuming the water in August, they stopped 10 years in the past. And then they had been actually annoyed that the strain varies to the purpose the place typically they don’t truly get water in any respect of their houses. There’s been a number of speak concerning the boil-water notices and the challenges with the standard of the water. But you should purchase bottled water to drink. When the water truly doesn’t get to your property, you possibly can’t flush your bathroom, you possibly can’t bathe your kids, and you may’t do something that you simply want massive portions of water for. That’s tragic. The connection was feeling that individuals had been so constructive about being in Jackson. They love their group. People have largely been overwhelmed down by this inconsistent system. And I felt like, perhaps I may make a distinction to begin the very small steps in the direction of restoring some belief.

Q: Issues with Jackson’s water system have bedeviled mayors, state legislators and state executives. Many of those leaders have deep ties to the realm. Why may this second, and the Justice Department’s order, catalyze progress that has evaded others who’ve tried to fix the water system?

A: I see it as a couple of key issues. You may roll again a bit of bit to the start of the Biden administration and the folks he put in place, and the main target he had on environmental justice. And it’s not simply EPA, it’s throughout the board, and it is actually not about political beliefs. It’s simply that anyone within the White House was actually centered on environmental justice throughout all packages. You had the appointment of Radhika Fox because the assistant administrator for water on the EPA. So we lastly had somebody who got here out of a water utility background, and with an fairness perspective. At the identical time, a number of federal funding simply occurred to be out there anyway with the bipartisan infrastructure funds. So all of this, I’d say, created a singular second in time while you’ve obtained funding from the federal authorities at unprecedented ranges out there for water techniques. You’ve obtained an administration very centered on environmental justice, and with extra of a utility perspective than another group on the EPA has ever had. Then you’ve obtained the nation’s eyes on the water group coming to assist Jackson. The complete nation is extra centered on water than it’s ever been.

Q: Why was it essential for the Justice Department order to embody sturdy legal responsibility protections for you and the individuals who can be working with you in Jackson?

A: In my early days right here in Jackson, as I used to be attempting to get people to assist and supply gear or companies, what I bumped into quite a bit was the problem {many professional} companies corporations had been seeing from a company perspective, and classes discovered largely throughout Flint. Some of the oldsters that responded lengthy after the instant catastrophe was remediated in Flint obtained washed into a number of the class motion lawsuits that had been filed towards everyone and anyone that was touching the Flint state of affairs. I’m not saying that there weren’t a lot of causes for folks to be suing in Flint. And there could also be causes for folks to sue Jackson. But I couldn’t even get people to say they’d work with Jackson with out some actually completely different protections.

Q: A precedence you have laid out is guaranteeing Jackson offers high-quality water that’s reasonably priced to everybody. How do you assume Jackson ought to method water charges, and as you oversee water system upgrades, how will you keep away from shifting the fee burden towards the underside of the socioeconomic spectrum in a metropolis the place about 25% of individuals stay in poverty?

A: Across the nation, we’ve been wrestling with this for years the place you strive to value water, so it’s reasonably priced for the bottom quintile. We are basically flawed within the United States in that we value water solely to burden that decrease finish of the financial spectrum, and we don’t even try to get extra income from the higher finish. That’s as a result of nearly each state has some kind of equitable rate requirement of their statutes that claims you possibly can’t deal with water prospects in another way. But what if we simply flipped the way in which we billed water so that everybody pays about the identical proportion of their earnings on water? For instance, when you have a look at property values as a surrogate for earnings, we may generate greater than sufficient income to truly personal and function and preserve the system, each water, sewer and distribution system, and have sufficient money to reinvest and pay debt service. That’s the kind of course the place I’d be wanting to take Jackson. We want to discover a extra equitable methodology of pricing so we aren’t elevating charges for the individuals who can’t afford it, however we nonetheless have to stay inside state legislation. And you already know, that there could also be some actual restrictions in how we will make that occur.

Q: You talked about working with the town and the state, and a number of the limitations beneath state legislation for adjusting how the town raises income. How will you navigate what has been a combative relationship between the town and state leaders?

A: I believe a bonus I convey is that I’m not a part of Mississippi’s political ecosystem. I didn’t actually know something about Jackson’s politics versus the state’s politics. So I discovered rapidly that they aren’t working properly collectively. But I believe I may very well be considered as a impartial, trustworthy dealer between each events. While they could not speak instantly to one another in constructive methods, I believe by way of me, they may have the option to get that dialog going, you already know. I can kind of shuttle diplomacy, so to converse.

Q: You’ve talked concerning the significance of modernizing water infrastructure with technology. What technological instruments may Jackson use to enhance its water system?

A: What’s lacking here’s a hydraulic mannequin. In at present’s world, you want to actually perceive what is going on in your system: how the valves are set, the place the strain modifications, how the tanks want to be stuffed and drained, and many others. All of that wants to be put into a complicated computer mannequin, and plenty of can be found at present. I actually don’t know why Jackson has gotten to the purpose the place they’re with out that. I referred to as the U.S. Water Alliance and stated what we actually want is to discover somebody that may build a hydraulic mannequin. And inside hours, I heard Autodesk provided to do it professional bono. They instantly stepped up to begin engaged on a mannequin, and that’s actually difficult while you don’t have quite a bit to give them about the place your pipes are and the place your valves are. But they’re very shut to getting that mannequin working for us.

Q: You intend to end your work in a single year. Is there any flexibility there? And how a lot progress are you able to make in a single year on the initiatives you have been tasked with beginning?

A: The order is silent on the top date. It’s over when the decide says it’s over. But the EPA and DOJ plan on rolling this right into a longer-term consent decree. The aim for the EPA, the town and DOJ is that each one the initiatives are properly underway, whether or not it’s design work or planning earlier than I’m out of right here in a year. But as you level out, a few of them are going to take years to assemble. I’m 63 years previous. There’s no approach I’m going past 65, so it’s going to be a race to a year or much less from my perspective. I’ll really feel wildly profitable if I can end it up in a year or much less.

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit nationwide service program that locations journalists in native newsrooms to report on undercovered points. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

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