North Lee County Water Association lacks full-time operator

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The North Lee County Water Association has lacked a full-time, state-certified water operator since 2008 when the person in that position stepped down.
Instead, it contracted with an outside operator, Ronald Ragland, who told the Daily Journal he rarely performed the services required of that position. Instead, he delegated the duties to the association’s then-supervisor, Dan Durham.
Durham and the association currently are under investigation by the state Department of Health, Environmental Protection Agency and others for allegedly falsifying the monthly water samples that typically are collected by the certified operator.
Durham was forced to quit earlier this month amid the allegations. If they’re true, Ragland also will be held liable as the association’s designated operator, said Melissa Parker, deputy director of the Mississippi Department of Health’s Bureau of Public Water Supply.
State law requires all community water systems to have a certified operator “who directly supervises and is personally responsible for the daily operation and maintenance of a community … water system.”
To be certified for groundwater systems like North Lee, the operator must have a high school diploma or GED, work at least one year in a similar-class or higher-classed system, and pass the state written exam.
Most of the roughly 1,500 rural water associations in the state have full-time certified operators, but about 40 percent contract for those services, said Mississippi Rural Water Association Chief Executive Officer Kirby Mayfield, adding that it’s common among the smaller systems.
It’s rare, though, for contracted operators to delegate water sampling to non-certified employees within the system. Mayfield said he didn’t know if any such cases existed and seemed surprised to hear it was the case at North Lee.
Ragland came on as a part-time operator after North Lee’s operator, Bill Warren, resigned for health reasons. The water association doesn’t pay Ragland for these services, although it paid him for engineering work he performed, according to an annual report filed with the state auditor.
Ragland claims Durham basically ran the operation and pulled monthly water samples, while he served more or less as an adviser. Only occasionally would he work on a water system or collect samples – maybe two or three times a year, he said.
Warren, too, occasionally returned to North Lee after his resignation to help new employees learn the ropes or locate meters. He had been employed with the association for about five years.
He also allegedly falsified his Public Water System Operations Log Book during his time with the entity, according to a recorded conversation this summer between Warren and a North Lee employee. The Daily Journal listened to the recording, on which a man sounding like Warren said he updated state-required log books months at a time instead of daily and that he frequently made up the dates he entered.
Warren denied the allegations and said it wasn’t him on the recording.
North Lee County Water Association operates seven different systems and serves about 4,400 customers scattered across the county. It’s one of the largest rural water associations in the northern part of the state.
Since allegations about mismanagement and sampling problems surfaced late last month, Durham and all but one of its board members quit. The association now is run by an ad-hoc board of two association customers and one former director.
The group chose employee Sonny Noble as interim supervisor. Ragland continues as the certified operator, although Noble said he wants to take the state test soon in hopes of becoming the permanent supervisor and full-time certified operator.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com