Priscilla Sterling is a teacher at Murray High School in Jackson, Miss., and has had “several of her children diagnosed with lead poisoning,” a class action lawsuit over Jackson’s water system alleges. Sterling joined three others as plaintiffs in the case against the City of Jackson, Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, former Mayor Tony Yarber, previous public works department leaders and two companies—Siemens and Trilogy Engineering Services.
A press release on the lawsuit indicated that it is “seeking injunctive relief and monetary damages against various government and private engineering defendants over the neglect, mismanagement, and maintenance failures that led to an environmental catastrophe leaving over 153,000 Jackson-area residents without access to safe running water.”
“The lawsuit seeks immediate injunctive relief, including the removal and remediation of lead pipes and fixtures, an adequate water supply delivered to each home until the water supply is safe for consumption, and an injunction entered to stop all Jackson residents from paying for the contaminated water, as well as compensatory, punitive, exemplary damages.”
The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi in Jackson on Sept. 16, 2022. After a request for comment on the lawsuit, Jackson Director of Communications Melissa Faith Payne told the Mississippi in a Sept. 19, 2022 email that “Due to pending litigation… the City has no comment.”
The lawsuit alleged that the City suffered a loss of revenue following a botched attempt from Siemens to revamp the water billing system, followed by the company’s settlement for “$90 million, reflecting nearly the entire original value of the contract,” the lawsuit says.
“But after attorneys’ fees and loan payments/reserves, that amount was not sufficient to rectify the damage the Siemens Defendants caused to the PWS of the City of Jackson,” it added. The preceding conduct by the Siemens Defendants’ conduct caused the City of Jackson’s PWS to deteriorate, which contributed to the failure to provide safe water.”
Trilogy Engineering Services advised the city on corrosion control in the water system, but “makes the situation worse,” the lawsuit alleges.
A Siemens spokesperson declined an interview and told the Mississippi Free Press in an email on Sept. 19, 2022, that the company does not “comment on active litigation matters.” Trilogy Engineering Services did not reply to a request for comment on Monday.
‘She Suffers from Headaches’
The lawsuit lists various ailments that Sterling and her household are experiencing, linked to “exposure to lead and other contaminants from Jackson’s tap water,” the plaintiffs alleged.
“She suffers from headaches,” the lawsuit says. “Her 24-year-old daughter has a learning disability and reoccurring yeast infections.”
“The entire household has experienced frequent episodes of unexplained itching. They attempted to have their water tested for lead and other contaminants but have not been able to obtain assistance in setting up a test. Each of these issues was caused by exposure to lead or other contaminants from Jackson’s tap water during the relevant time period.”
The lawsuit alleged negligence of the water supply in the city, “culminating in its complete shutdown in August 2022, leaving over 150,000 residents, 82.5% of whom are Black, and over 24% are living in poverty, without access to running water,” the 100-page document says.
“These residents lack more than just drinking water, or water for making powdered baby formula, cooking, showering, or laundry,” the lawsuit says. “During the long period where the city pipes had no water pressure—and were unable to facilitate the flow of water—residents of Jackson could not flush their toilets for days at a time.”
The lawsuit outlines issues relating to “contamination of Jackson’s water supply,” and “lack of water access.”
‘Hardship, Loss of income, and Emotional Distress’
Raine Becker is a single mother who is experiencing the financial impact of the water crisis in the City of Jackson. She is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and has lived in the city for two years and works three jobs.
“When the PWS (Public Water System) cannot deliver water, Plaintiff cannot readily go about normal daily activities like using the bathroom, brushing her teeth, and cooking,” the lawsuit says. “This causes Plaintiff significant hardship, loss of income, and emotional distress.”
Becker’s three jobs include working for an app-based laundry pick-up and delivery service provider, and delivering foods through two different apps.
“Without clean water with which to wash customers’ clothes, playoffs; livelihood has been harmed,” the lawsuit says “Without clean water with which to cook and wash dishes, restaurants in Jackson have suffered. As a result, Plaintiff must drive outside of Jackson in order to find food delivery gigs. Driving outside of Jackson to find work takes more time and requires more gasoline.”
In the press release, Becker said the point of the lawsuit is to force action concerning the city’s water system, care for the community and put systems in place to ensure it never happens again.
“We’re suffering because of the lack of leadership and planning by government officials and others,” Becker said. “Access to clean water is a basic human right, and government officials must be held accountable for their misconduct.”
The lawsuit describes more problems plaintiffs have faced, will face, and could face because of the issues with the water in Jackson.
“As a result of Defendants’ actions, Plaintiffs have suffered and will continue to suffer injuries including but not necessarily limited to: dehydration, malnutrition, lead poisoning, E. Coli exposure, exposure to other hazardous contaminants, various health problems (including without limitation hair loss, skin rashes, digestive and other organ problems), physical pain and suffering, mental anguish, fright and shock, disability, denial of social pleasures and enjoyments, embarrassment, humiliation and mortification, medical expenses, wage loss,income loss, business income loss, brain and/or developmental injuries (including without limitation cognitive deficits, lost earning capacity and aggravation of preexisting conditions),” the lawsuit says.
“All families are entitled to clean and safe drinking water,” Attorney Mark P. Chalos, one of eight who filed the lawsuit, said in the press release. He is a partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.
“Government officials turning a blind eye to contaminated water and letting a major American city’s infrastructure crumble into disrepair is neither representing nor caring for its people. This lawsuit seeks to bring justice—and safe, clean water—to the Jackson community.”
A city-wide boil-water notice beginning on July 29, 2022, ended on Sept. 15, 2022, more than a month and a half later, after federal and state authorities’ intervention.
Mississippi Department of Health Senior Deputy Jim Craig addressed the issue of lead in water in the city of Jackson at the press conference announcing the lifting of the boil-water notice. He said “some homes in the Jackson area had previously shown elevated levels of lead in their drinking water.”
“The city of Jackson has an ongoing project to address the causes and provides information for customers in their required consumer confidence report,” he added. “Although the majority of home lead testing performed to date identify no lead or lead below the action level set by the EPA, the health department is continuing its recommendations as a special precaution, especially for households with young children or pregnant women.”
See the Mississippi Free Press’ full Jackson water-crisis coverage since March 2021.