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EPA: "All options are on the table" regarding a possible federal takeover of Jackson's water system

( CBS )

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency says "all options are on the table" when it comes to a possible federal takeover of the water system in Jackson, Mississippi.

"It's hard to explain how and why government has failed the city of Jackson and the people of Jackson," EPA Administrator Michael Regan told CBS News in an interview that aired Tuesday on "Prime Time with John Dickerson."

Regan has traveled to Jackson twice since flooding at the end of August triggered the failure of a water treatment plant and left the capital city without running water for days. President Biden issued a disaster declaration and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves declared an emergency. The National Guard was called in to help with water distribution, schools and businesses were forced to close and residents were told to shower with their mouths closed because the water was not safe.

Since August, state and local officials have engaged in finger-pointing to try and assign blame for the massive infrastructure failure, which followed years of financial trouble for the city's water system.

One factor some have cited in the breakdown was a $90 million contract signed in 2013 with the international company Siemens. The plan was to upgrade the water system, but the effort was unsuccessful. It ended in a lawsuit and legal settlement in which Siemens denied any wrongdoing. CBS News reported on the continuing reverberations of that failed arrangement. Siemens provided a short statement to CBS News saying that the agreement"settled [the] issue," and "the project did not end as either party hoped."

Water service returned last month, but the city's mayor sounded alarms again this week as the city prepares to welcome tens of thousands of out-of-town visitors for Jackson State University's football game against Southern University, under the spotlight of ESPN's "College GameDay." That crowd, he warned, could again stress the city's crippled water system beyond its capacity.

"This is a water conservation notice of sorts," Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told reporters. "Please just be mindful of your water consumption this weekend so that the increased demand doesn't cause an unnecessary burden on our water treatment distribution."

Last month the Department of Justice, in concert with the EPA, sent a letter to Jackson inviting it "to engage in immediate negotiations relating to the City's recent drinking water crisis." The Department of Justice went on to say that if the matter could not be resolved with an agreement, it was prepared to file an action against the city under the Safe Drinking Water Act for allegedly endangering the welfare of its citizens.

Asked by CBS News if a federal takeover was a possibility, Regan responded that the federal government will need "to look at what we need to do in the short-, mid- and long-term to ensure that the people of Jackson have good quality drinking water."

Pressed on whether he would rule out a possible federal takeover of the Jackson water system, Regan replied: "We're evaluating all options on the table."

The mayor's office in Jackson declined to comment.

Regan has been traveling the country to visit places where he believes chronic underinvestment has left communities without the infrastructure they need.

"When you look at the data," Regan said, "Black and brown communities and low-income communities have been disproportionately impacted by environmental hazard and harm because of a lack of investment. That's what the data shows."

"There's a systemic problem that we need to address to ensure that we never get back here," Regan said, adding that he expects other communities — especially those with underserved populations — could face the same fate as Jackson. Asked how many cities he considered at risk, Regan replied: "Dozens, if not more."

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