The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is launching a civil rights investigation into whether or not the state of Mississippi discriminated against its capital city of Jackson by failing to fix its outdated water infrastructure.
The city of Jackson, which is more than 80 percent Black, suffered a water crisis this August after flooding led to the failure of its main treatment plant. However, this inciting incident was just the tip of the iceberg for the city, which has been struggling with failing water infrastructure for years.
“Today’s decision by the EPA is a significant first step in holding the state accountable for its role in exacerbating the Jackson water crisis,” NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Director Abre’ Conner said in a statement. “For far too long, residents of Jackson, like Black communities across this country, have had water access weaponized against them. The NAACP and our partners will continue finding and holding those in power accountable to ensure that all communities have access to clean drinking water.”
BREAKING: the @EPA has opened a federal civil rights investigation into the State of Mississippi for its decades-long pattern of discriminating against the City of Jackson when it comes to funding for water improvements. #ThisIsPower https://t.co/Zm6rvyu2w0 pic.twitter.com/F4ZUJnLWTn— NAACP (@NAACP) October 20, 2022
The EPA’s action, announced Thursday, came in response to a discrimination complaint filed by the NAACP late last month and also comes as two Congressional committees have started investigations into the Jackson water crisis. In a letter responding to the NAACP complaint, the EPA said it would investigate whether the Mississippi Department of Health (MDH) and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) “discriminated against the majority Black population of the City of Jackson on the basis of race in their funding of water infrastructure and treatment programs and activities.”
The Jackson City water crisis came to an acute head at the end of August when the failure of its main treatment plant left 180,000 people without access to running water. Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency and the state moved to distribute bottled water. However, even before the plant failed the city had been under a boil notice for a month, as AP News explained. Residents had further endured more than 300 boil notices during the past two years, according to Politico.
The city, where a quarter of residents live in poverty, has been asking the state for funds to improve its water infrastructure for years, according to AP News. Some city leaders said that state officials had not returned their calls to discuss improvements, as CNN reported. In its complaint, the NAACP said the state had a history of channeling funds to predominantly white communities with less need and that its actions “all but assured” the summer’s crisis, according to AP News.
“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,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson, himself a Jackson resident, told The AP 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.”
The complaint was filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EPA typically tries to resolve complaints informally but has a total of 180 days to complete an investigation if that doesn’t work, Politico explained. If the MDH and MDEQ are found to have discriminated, they could face further action from the Department of Justice or could lose out on federal money until they change their policies.
The state of Mississippi has received nearly $75 million in water funding from an infrastructure law but has not earmarked any over it towards fixing the Jackson plant. Reeves has accused city leadership of incompetence, AP News reported.
“They have proven that they have no ability to manage the water system,” he told journalists, as AP News reported.
However, the city has been reeling from the impacts of environmental racism for more than half a century, the Mississippi Free Press noted. Pipes in the city haven’t been properly upgraded since the 1950s, and civic leaders have been warning about the water system since the 1970s. Yet the city faced challenges in funding upgrades on its own because white flight following desegregation cut into its revenue from taxes and middle class Black people have also now begun to leave.
The case will be one of the first investigated under the EPA’s new office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights. While few environmental cases have been investigated under the Civil Rights Act, the Biden administration has made environmental justice a priority, AP News reported.