EPA launches civil rights investigation into state funding of Jackson water projects

Published: Oct. 20, 2022 at 4:36 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON, D.C. (WLBT) - A federal civil rights investigation has been launched into whether the state has discriminated against Jackson in funding its water infrastructure needs.

Thursday, an EPA spokesperson confirmed the agency is conducting the probe, just weeks after the NAACP and others asked the Office of External Civil Rights Compliance (OECRC) to look into it.

The investigation will determine whether the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) discriminated against Jackson, a majority-Black city, “in its funding of water infrastructure and treatment programs and activities,” in violation of Title VI the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other anti-discriminatory laws.

It also is looking into whether MDEQ has or is putting policies in place to ensure nondiscrimination, a requirement of all recipients receiving federal assistance, also mandated under federal law.

The National NAACP, the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson and others filed the complaint in late September, citing years of discrimination against the capital city, in favor of funding “smaller, majority-white communities with less acute needs.”

Jackson has a population of just under 150,000 people, of whom 82.5 percent are Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In a statement, National NAACP President Derrick Johnson said he applauded the EPA, Administrator Michael Regan and the Biden Administration for taking the allegations seriously. However, he said this is only the first step.

“NAACP and its partners will continue to press the Biden Administration and Congress to hold state officials accountable and ensure that Jackson officials and residents are active participants in the decision-making that will be required to fix the unacceptable problems with Jackson’s water,” he said.

Former Mayor Johnson said he was pleased with the news. “Obviously, I hope it [leads to] better treatment for the city of Jackson in terms of the receipt of federal dollars flowing through the state of Mississippi,” he said.

The state’s “disinvestment” into Jackson water also is being questioned on the Congressional level. Earlier this week, two Democratic Congressional leaders sent a letter to Gov. Tate Reeves requesting information on how the state plans to spend billions in federal funds to help Jackson address its water needs.

The state took over management of Jackson’s water system in late August, after equipment failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant left tens of thousands of people without water.

In an October 20 letter posted on the NAACP’s website, EPA also said it was launching similar investigations into the Mississippi State Department of Health.

The agency informed NAACP that the initiation of the investigation was not a decision on the merits of the complaints. “OECRC is a neutral fact finder and will begin its process to gather the relevant information, discuss the matter further with you and MDH and MDEQ, and determine the next steps utilizing OECRC’s internal procedures,” the letter states.

WLBT has reached out to MDEQ and MSDH for comment. Liz Sharlot, director of MSDH’s Office of Communications, said MSDH is a “regulatory agency that ensures compliance, offers education and guidance, and protects the public health safety of all Mississippians. The agency also works with all eligible public water systems needing funds to improve their plants through the State Revolving Loan Fund.”

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