House Democrats launch probe of Miss. water spending

By Hannah Northey | 10/17/2022 04:24 PM EDT

The Democrats want to know whether Mississippi’s Republican leaders withheld much-needed water infrastructure money from the majority Black city of Jackson.

Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).

House Homeland Security Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Oversight and Reform Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). Francis Chung/E&E News

Top House Democrats launched an investigation Monday into whether Mississippi’s Republican leadership blocked funding from reaching the city of Jackson, which is grappling with a failing drinking water system.

Homeland Security Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Oversight and Reform Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) to explain how the state doled out more than $10 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act and $429 million from the bipartisan infrastructure law for water projects.

“We urge you to devote adequate funding to Jackson to ensure residents have access to safe and healthy drinking water and to avert a future water crisis,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter.


Thompson, whose district includes large swaths of Jackson, joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers last month in calling on Reeves and other state leaders to explain whether Jackson had been starved of money (E&E Daily, Sept. 22).

The NAACP filed a civil rights complaint with EPA lawmaker concerns and urged the federal agency to investigate. Jackson is a majority Black community (Greenwire, Sept. 28).

While the city has for years struggled with water boil notices and unreliable services, more than 150,000 people lost access to drinking water earlier this year after floodwaters damaged pumps at the O.B. Curtis water treatment plant.

Thompson and Maloney cited both the civil rights complaint and a Clarion-Ledger article accusing Reeves of “block[ing] money to fund water system repairs in the capital city.” They said the water plant remains “precarious, and risks to Jackson’s residents persist.”

The House members’ letter questions restrictions the state put on federal dollars tied to the American Rescue Plan Act and the infrastructure, money that was meant to flow to areas deemed “disadvantaged and overburdened.”

The lawmakers specifically asked about the Mississippi Legislature’s decision to allocate federal funding from the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program on a matching basis with municipalities.

“The cost of necessary maintenance to Jackson’s water distribution systems is forecasted to be as high as $1 billion,” they wrote. “Under the matching formula Mississippi adopted for American Rescue Plan Act funds, Jackson would directly receive, at most, $84 million for water projects — assuming the city is able to use its entire allocation for these projects.”

The Democratic lawmakers also asked why the state’s list of priorities doesn’t include the O.B. Curtis plant, and why Jackson faces “special burdens” in obtaining money through a fund the Legislature established for water and sewage projects.

Trading accusations

Thompson and Maloney released their letter amid a dispute between Reeves and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba.

Reeves accuses the city of rejecting a Unified Command Structure, which the governor said has kept the city’s water services stable.

Lumumba said the city “has made no mention of ending the City’s cooperation” with the command structure and continues to work closely with EPA, the Department of Justice and state officials.

But the mayor emphasized Jackson is demanding to oversee any language tied to the hiring of a third-party firm to operate water treatment facilities there, and the city will “have the final say.”

“Instead of issuing erroneous new releases, we invite the Governor to have an actual conversation with City leaders and our federal partners about the City’s water treatment plants,” Lumumba said in a statement.

Reeves’ office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.