JACKSON, Miss. – In a federal complaint Tuesday, 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 Environmental Protection Agency 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.
NAACP president Derrick Johnson lives in Jackson and joined other local residents in filing the complaint with the EPA under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids anyone who receives federal funds from discriminating based on race or national origin. In the past, this part of the law has rarely been used on environmental matters, but the Biden administration has promised to step up enforcement in communities overburdened by pollution.
“Jackson's majority-Black population has been repeatedly ignored, spurned, or ridiculed, resulting in the most recent water access inequity and crisis,” the NAACP said.
The group wants the EPA to make sure that from now on federal funds are distributed equitably.
The U.S. Justice Department is working to improve Jackson’s water system. If a voluntary improvement plan isn't reached with the city, the department threatened Monday to file legal action under a different law, the Safe Water Drinking Act, which regulates harmful substances in tap water. The city has repeatedly violated this law in recent years.
There were warnings the Jackson water system was struggling before it failed. Roughly 300 boil-water notices were issued over the previous two years. Racism and neglect created a particularly bad situation in the city.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited the community Monday to talk to city officials and ensure they can “deliver long overdue relief for Jackson residents.”
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, has blamed Jackson's water problems on mismanagement by city leaders. Reeves declared an emergency for the water system in late August and brought in out-of-state crews to help make repairs. Before the city's latest water crisis, though, Reeves expressed his own opposition to state funding for Jackson water improvements, saying he wants to hold down Mississippi's overall debt level.
The Biden administration has several other environmental civil rights investigations open. The Justice Department is looking into how local and state officials in Alabama allowed chronically bad wastewater problems to fester in majority-Black Lowndes County, and for the first time the EPA initiated its own investigation into Colorado’s air program.
More than 80% of Jackson residents are Black and roughly a quarter live in poverty. About a decade after the public schools integrated in the 1970s, white flight began. Mississippi's largest city now struggles with a shrinking tax base.
Denecka Samuels, a mother of six children, lives in one of the poorest parts of Jackson. When water was not flowing from the tap, she said she had to fetch it from a barrel and cart it home to bathe her children. Samuels said frequent boil-water notices also make life much harder.
“It’s a constant struggle,” Samuels said. “I have to keep reminding my younger kids, ‘Do not drink the water out of that faucet.’ ... They’re young and they don’t understand.”
Samuels was among several people who spoke Monday evening at a Poor People’s Campaign protest to bring attention to Jackson water problems. The event was near the Governor’s Mansion.
“I did not choose to be Black. I did not choose this life to not have no water,” Samuels said. “It chose me.”
In addition to her family responsibilities, Samuels said she has been working with the Poor People’s Campaign to distribute bottled water to Jackson residents.
It is crucial for water systems to maintain pressure so that untreated groundwater doesn’t seep into cracks in the pipes. After heavy rain, the quality of water entering Jackson’s treatment plants changed, which the system couldn’t handle, causing a drop in pressure. Residents were told to boil water to kill potentially harmful bacteria.
Officials lifted Jackson’s citywide boil-water notice Sept. 15, nearly seven weeks after it was issued. But new boil-water notices have been issued for several neighborhoods within the city since then because of broken pipes.
In other legal actions earlier this month, four Jackson residents filed a proposed class action against current and former local officials, an engineering firm and a business contracted to replace water meters. They want lead pipes and equipment replaced and the system fixed, plus damages.
The EPA said it would decide whether to investigate within 25 days.
Phillis reported from St. Louis.
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