EPA launches civil rights probe over Jackson water crisis

By Hannah Northey | 10/21/2022 01:31 PM EDT

Volunteers are pictured distributing cases of water at a community/fraternal drive-thru water distribution site in Jackson, Miss., on Sept. 7.

Volunteers are pictured distributing cases of water at a community/fraternal drive-thru water distribution site in Jackson, Miss., on Sept. 7. The NAACP said Sept. 27 that Mississippi is discriminating against Jackson’s majority-Black population by diverting badly needed federal funds for drinking water infrastructure to white communities that needed it less. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File

This story was updated at 2:15 p.m. EDT.

EPA is opening a federal civil rights investigation into whether the Republican-led state of Mississippi violated the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against the majority-Black city of Jackson by blocking funding for a water treatment plant there that recently crashed.

EPA on Thursday said it will take up a complaint lawyers representing the NAACP and a group of private residents filed last month, which accused state officials of starving Jackson of the funds needed to provide basic necessities like clean water (Greenwire, Sept. 28).


Years of inadequate staffing, funding and maintenance backlogs have fueled system failures, regulatory concerns and hundreds of boil-water notices tied to the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. In August, the plant was overwhelmed by floodwaters from the Pearl River, which ultimately triggered a dangerous drop in pressure that left more than 150,000 people without safe drinking water.

Anhthu Hoang, acting head of EPA’s Office of External Civil Rights Compliance, on Thursday told lawyers representing NAACP in a letter that the agency will investigate whether the Mississippi State Department of Health and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality discriminated against Jackson “on the basis of race in the funding of water infrastructure and treatment programs and activities.”

Hoang’s letter was addressed to Janette McCarthy Wallace, NAACP’s general counsel, and Carol Browner, ex-EPA chief under former President Bill Clinton and climate czar to former President Barack Obama, who is now a partner with the law firm Covington & Burling LLP, who had filed the complaint under Title 6 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The letter was also addressed to Gary Guzy, senior counsel at Covington.

The law bars recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating on the base of race, color or national origin in programs or activities.

“This discrimination is evident in the State’s repeatedly having deprived Jackson of federal funds to maintain its public drinking water system in favor of funding smaller, majority-white communities with less acute needs — despite the fact that Jackson is Mississippi’s most populous city, with a demonstrated need for improvements to water infrastructure,” McCarthy Wallace and Browner and Guzy wrote in the complaint.

Hoang said the NAACP’s request met the jurisdictional requirements, but rejected allegations against the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration because the agency doesn’t receive federal financial assistance.

Specifically, EPA is investigating whether the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the Mississippi State Department of Health discriminated against the city of Jackson on the “basis of race and color, by intent or effect” in funding water infrastructure and treatment programs and activities. Another focus of the investigation is whether the state agencies have or are implementing the “procedural safeguards” to comply with their general nondiscrimination obligations.

The two state agencies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The NAACP in a statement applauded EPA and the Biden administration for opening the federal civil rights investigation.

“This action 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 Jackon’s water,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson.

Attorneys for the NAACP had argued that Mississippi officials, including Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, the Legislature, state treasurer and multiple agencies, repeatedly deprived the city of Jackson of necessary funding that met the populous city’s needs.

Reeves’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

State agencies, for example, awarded federal funds to the city through state revolving funds just three times in the past 25 years while channeling money to majority-white areas with less need, according to the complaint.

The complaint also accused Reeves and the Republican-controlled state Legislature of taking other steps to block the city from helping itself, including vetoing legislation that would have provided Jackson with money to fix its water system, rejecting a sales tax to fund repairs there and appointing a state commission that hampered the city’s expenditures.

The O.B. Curtis water plant has long been on EPA’s radar for lagging maintenance and staffing woes. The Department of Justice on behalf of EPA last month threatened to take legal action if the city of Jackson didn’t enter into negotiations to address a series of outstanding violations under the Safe Drinking Water Act (Greenwire, Sept. 27).

EPA’s announcement arrives mere days after two congressional committees launched an investigation into the crisis (E&E News PM, Oct. 17).