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EPA investigates Mississippi's spending of federal funds before Jackson water crisis

The probe comes in response to a federal civil rights complaint by the NAACP.
Volunteers distribute cases of water at a community/fraternal drive-thru water distribution site in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 7, 2022.  A boil-water advisory has been lifted for Mississippi's capital, and the state will stop handing out free bottled water on Saturday. But the crisis isn't over. Water pressure still hasn't been fully restored in Jackson, and some residents say their tap water still comes out looking dirty and smelling like sewage.
Volunteers distribute cases of water at a community/fraternal drive-thru water distribution site in Jackson, Miss., on Sept. 7, 2022.Rogelio V. Solis / AP file

JACKSON, Miss. — The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether Mississippi officials handled federal funds in a way that discriminated against residents of the state’s predominately Black capital city, which has been roiled by a series of drinking water crises and service outages in recent years.

In late September, the NAACP asked the agency to look into the state’s spending decisions, as Jackson’s leaders pleaded for more financial support. The civil rights organization alleged that the state’s rollout of federal dollars has favored whiter communities, even as Jackson has struggled to comply with state and federal guidelines meant to protect drinking water quality.

Thursday’s announcement of the probe means the EPA’s Office of External Civil Rights Compliance will look into whether two state agencies ran afoul of a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits recipients of federal dollars from engaging in discriminatory behavior, whether intentionally or not. The decision to open an investigation does not mean that the EPA has made a determination of whether any wrongdoing occurred. 

NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who lives in Jackson, said in an interview that the city’s ongoing water troubles are “the result of the state starving the city of resources over the last several decades.”

“What’s at stake is an opportunity for the residents to be ensured that the state will be held accountable for denying them clean, safe drinking water,” he said.

A spokesperson for Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves did not immediately comment on the investigation. 

The NAACP’s federal complaint raises concerns about a loan program overseen by the state Department of Health that distributes federal funding to communities to improve their water systems. The NAACP argues that Jackson, which it says has received funding three times over the loan program’s 25-year history, has been largely shut off from a critical resource. 

The Mississippi Department of Health said in a statement that its mission is to protect “the public health safety of all Mississippians” and that the agency “also works with all eligible public water systems needing funds to improve their plants through the State Revolving Loan Fund.”

The filing also refers to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality’s role in overseeing a water infrastructure grant program created by the state Legislature that places Jackson under additional oversight in order to access funds.

The EPA’s investigation comes in the wake of complications from flooding this summer that left thousands of Jackson residents without any running water for days. 

Environmental justice and civil rights advocates have argued that failed attempts by local officials to secure more resources from the Legislature to address the city’s water system have further exacerbated Jackson’s infrastructure challenges. 

 Since the 1980s, the city has suffered from a dwindling tax base amid population loss. Problems with water billing and collections have also resulted in Jackson missing out on sorely needed revenue that could go toward repairs.

The EPA’s inquiry comes just days after the launch of a congressional investigation concerning the city’s water crisis. Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., have asked Reeves to answer a series of questions about how the state has spent or plans to spend federal funds that can upgrade water systems in the state.

The EPA’s Office of Inspector General, which is an independent office within the agency, is also reviewing this summer’s water emergency, which resulted in a federal disaster declaration from the White House.