Jackson, Mississippi, residents sue officials over water crisis

The plaintiffs are suing over hardship faced from a lack of safe water.

September 20, 2022, 4:42 PM

As Jackson, Mississippi, continues efforts to recover from the city's water crisis this summer, residents have filed a class action lawsuit against former and current city officials, as well as infrastructure engineering companies, for their alleged role in neglecting or worsening a "foreseeable" public health crisis, according to the filed complaint.

Raine Becker, one of four named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told ABC News she was unaware of the ongoing water issues in Jackson when she moved there two years ago. Becker says her first experience with these problems came in 2021 when winter storms left her without water for two weeks.

After a failing water treatment plant led to low water pressure and the contamination of Jackson's water supply last month, Becker says she was left wondering how she would pay her bills and care for her seven-year-old son Shylar, who is terminally ill.

"I pick up people's laundry...bring it to my house, wash it, dry it, fold it, and bring it back. Two days without water meant two days without a paycheck," she said. "So now I'm being hit professionally and personally."

Becker told ABC News that Shylar, who she says was born with a heart defect and developed terminal liver disease, has a feeding tube that requires sanitary water to flush it. Using contaminated water could have fatal consequences, she says.

PHOTO: Raine Becker (right) with her son, Shylar Becker.
Raine Becker (right) with her son, Shylar Becker.
Courtesy Raine Becker

"I​​f I had been flushing with the water we were given through the tap, we might be in a whole different predicament right now. Like that would hospitalize him, potentially kill him," she said. "It's important and imperative that we have clean, safe water. I mean for everybody, not just because I have a sick child. This is a human right."

Becker said that while she does not want to minimize the impact of officials' efforts to mitigate the crisis, including offering state-run water distribution sites, residents should not have to rely on them.

"I feel like they were reactive instead of proactive," she said. "And the second they knew there was a problem--the second they knew there was an issue whether it was with the plant or the pipes, they should have looked into fixing it then and they didn't and they failed to protect us."

Mississippi ended its boil water notice for all of Jackson's residents on Sept. 15, nearly two weeks after water pressure returned to the state capital's residents after days of a water shortage crisis that impacted thousands of Jacksonians.

The complaint names the City of Jackson; Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba; former mayor Tony Yarber; former public works directors Kishia Powell, Robert Miller and Jerriot Smash; Siemens Corporation, Siemens Industry and Trilogy Engineering Services as defendants.

Spokespersons for Lumumba, Powell, Miller, and Siemens declined to comment when reached by ABC News.

Yarber, Smash, and Trilogy Engineering did not immediately respond to ABC News' requests for comment.

Lumumba spoke with "ABC News Prime" last month about the roots of this water crisis, which he said has been unfolding over several years.

"This is due to decades, decades and decades, of possibly 30 years or more of deferred maintenance, a lack of capital improvements made to the system, a lack of a human capital, a workforce plan that accounted for the challenges that our water treatment facility suffers from," Lumumba said.

PHOTO: A member of the National Guard places a case of water in the back of a car at the State Fair Grounds in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 2, 2022.
A member of the National Guard places a case of water in the back of a car at the State Fair Grounds in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 2, 2022.
Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images

Mark Chalos, a partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP, is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He told ABC News that the water system's failure last month "is not a surprise and shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone in connection with running the Jackson water system."

Plaintiffs are seeking damages and relief including regular water testing, removal of contaminated pipes, cancellation of bills and debts for contaminated or undelivered water and community health centers for those affected by contaminated water, according to the complaint.

Chalos says he and his clients ultimately hope that the lawsuit pushes officials to resolve the water system's issues entirely and immediately.

Becker says she hopes officials have a structured plan to prevent this from happening again.

"I have faith and I believe that hopefully they will actually fix this," Becker said. "I hope nobody else ever has to go through this. This has been horrible. It's been costly. It's had a lot of bad effects. And so I hope that they can learn from this and grow from this."