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Jackson water crisis could be early test for EPA’s new civil rights and environmental justice arm

Jackson water crisis could be early test for EPA's new civil rights and environmental justice arm

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – A civil rights investigation into the state’s “disinvestment” into Jackson’s water system could be a test case for a new office set up in the Environmental Protection Agency to focus on environmental justice.

Monday, an estimated 800 people gathered at New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson to hear from leaders about two ongoing investigations into the city’s crisis, both of which could help determine whether the state has intentionally discriminated against the majority-Black capital city in providing federal funds for water and sewer infrastructure.

The town hall comes just days after the EPA’s Office of External Civil Rights and Environmental Justice agreed to take on an investigation into the alleged discrimination, weeks after a complaint was filed by the NAACP.

Prior to EPA taking on that case, US Rep. Bennie Thompson launched his own probe into the state’s spending, asking Gov. Tate Reeves for data on how the state has or plans to distribute billions of dollars in federal American Rescue Plan Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law dollars, and whether those plans have negatively impacted the capital city.

“The question is whether or not Jackson water customers, the city of Jackson will be treated in a fair and equitable manner,” Thompson, the chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said. “When we feel the money here, the expectation is that all of the equal opportunity, civil rights laws are being followed.”

Thompson and Rep. Carolyn Maloney initiated their inquiry on October 17. EPA announced it was launching its investigation on October 20.

NAACP asked for the investigation shortly after EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the formation of the Office of External Civil Rights and Environmental Justice.

“Administrator Regan has publicly stated that it’s really important for him and the EPA to prioritize historically disadvantaged communities, Black communities like Jackson,” said Abre’ Conner, director of Environmental and Climate Justice for NAACP. “Our administrative complaint was filed… because we wanted to hold the administrator accountable as well.”

The complaint was filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The act states that no program receiving federal funds shall discriminate against individuals based on race, color, or national origin, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website.

In September, the National NAACP, the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson, and others asked for the Title VI investigation, saying the state had “repeatedly… deprived Jackson of federal funds to maintain its public drinking water system in favor of funding smaller, majority-white communities with less acute needs.”

They say as a result of that “disinvestment,” the city’s water system has fallen apart, culminating in water crises in February 2021 and in August/September 2022.

“The goal of our complaint was to elevate the conversation and target the entity that caused the injury,” Derrick Johnson said. “Our request is simple: clean, drinkable water for all the citizens of Jackson [and] that the public asset remains public.”

Conner told the crowd that the state’s discrimination against the city is evident in the fact that Jackson has only received federal funding from the state three times in the last 25 years. She also pointed to the additional oversight the city is subject to as part of the Municipality and County Water Infrastructure Grant Program.

MCWI was established by the legislature during the 2022 session to provide cities and counties with a dollar-for-dollar match for every American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollar they use to make improvements to water, sewer, and stormwater infrastructure.

Most cities and counties that receive funding through the program will get a direct allocation. However, Jackson is subject to additional oversight from a state agency.

Johnson says systemic racism has impacted the city for years and can be found in everything from the establishment of a metro chamber of commerce to a push to create a regional authority to govern Jackson water.

He says creating such an authority would take control of the water system away from the city’s elected leaders.

“So, the Title VI complaint we filed is to lift up those things and many others… so that EPA can investigate and put a pause on the discriminatory actions against the state of Mississippi,” he said.

In addition to holding EPA accountable, Johnson says the complaint also is designed to ensure the Biden Administration follows through on its promise to address “structural racism.”

Said Johnson, “If this current administration says their goal is to address structural racism, structural barriers, Jackson must be the test case.”

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