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EPA opens civil rights probe into Mississippi water woes

Chokwe Antar Lumumba
Posted at 5:54 PM, Oct 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-20 18:54:29-04

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that it is investigating whether Mississippi state agencies discriminated against the state's majority-Black capital city by refusing to fund improvements for its failing water system.

The announcement came days after leaders of two congressional committees said they were starting a joint investigation into a crisis that left most homes and businesses in Jackson without running water for several days in late August and early September.

Heavy rainfall in late August exacerbated problems at Jackson's main water treatment facility. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves declared an emergency Aug. 29, and the state health department and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency have been overseeing operations and repairs at the facility since then.

About 80% of Jackson's 150,000 residents are Black, and about a quarter of the population lives in poverty. By the time Reeves issued the emergency order, Jackson residents had already been told for a month to boil their water before to kill possible contaminants.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who lives in Jackson with his family, called the EPA investigation a step in the right direction after years of the state withholding federal funds needed to avert the city's water system.

"We believe we gave compelling evidence that the state of Mississippi intentionally starved the city of Jackson of the resources to maintain its water infrastructure," Johnson told The Associated Press on Thursday. "We want the EPA and this administration to put forth a course of action to prevent the state of Mississippi from ever doing this again."

Johnson was named among several resident complainants in the NAACP's civil rights complaint against Mississippi. He said the state's inaction and record of divestment in Jackson amounts to "systemic neglect."

"We believe that all citizens of this country should be entitled to clean, fresh drinking water," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, we live in a state that is still dealing in racial politics. And as a result of that, you have state leaders who seek to penalize African American residents of the city of Jackson in a very discriminatory way."

Reeves said Thursday that the state took control of Jackson's water system because of "absolute and total incompetence" of Jackson's Democratic mayor and administration. The governor's latest remarks are an escalation of a dispute between him and Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba over whether the state or the city will decide on a private firm to operate Jackson's water system.

"They have proven that they have no ability to manage the water system," Reeves told reporters during an event at the Governor's Mansion, according to a video of the event by WLBT-TV.

In a federal complaint Sept. 27, the NAACP said Mississippi officials "all but assured" a drinking water calamity in Jackson by depriving the state's majority-Black capital city of badly needed funds to upgrade its infrastructure. The organization asked the EPA to investigate the state's alleged pattern of steering money to white communities with less need.

The group said the state's refusal to fund improvements in Jackson culminated in late August when the water system suffered a near-total collapse after a heavy rainstorm. Over 25 years, it said, Jackson received funds from an important federal program only three times. When Jackson tried to fund improvements itself, those efforts were repeatedly blocked by Mississippi state political leaders, according to the complaint.

The NAACP wants the EPA to make sure that from now on federal funds are distributed equitably.

The NAACP filed its complaint with the EPA under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids recipients of federal funds from discriminating based on race or national origin. While previously the law was rarely used to pursue environmental matters, the Biden administration has increased its enforcement efforts in communities overburdened by pollution.

Recently, the EPA said it had preliminary evidence that Louisiana state officials allowed air pollution in an industrial stretch of Louisiana to remain high and downplayed the threat to Black residents that live in the industrial section of the state commonly referred to as cancer alley. The agency has also opened up an investigation into Colorado's air permitting program and into state and local officials in Alabama over chronic wastewater problems in majority-Black Lowndes County.

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Associated Press writer Michael Phillis in St. Louis contributed to this report. Daly reported from Washington and Morrison reported from New York.