The Environmental Protection Agency wrote in a letter Thursday that it is opening a civil rights investigation into the state of Mississippi’s role in the breakdown of Jackson’s water system.
The letter is in response to a complaint the NAACP filed on Sept. 27 under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The complaint alleges Mississippi has discriminated against the city on the basis of race, and that the state has “deprived” Jackson of federal funds intended for maintaining safe drinking water systems.
Mississippi, which has no Black statewide elected officials, is 38% Black and 59% white. Jackson is 83% Black and 16% white.
The EPA specified in the letter that it will investigate whether the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the Mississippi State Department of Health discriminated against Jackson in their funding of water programs. It will also investigate whether the two state agencies have safeguards and policies to protect against discrimination as required by Title VI.
“The Mississippi State Department of Health is a regulatory agency that ensures compliance, offers education and guidance, and protects the public health safety of all Mississippians,” Liz Sharlot, a spokeswoman for the state health department, said in a statement. “The Agency also works with all eligible public water systems needing funds to improve their plants through the State Revolving Loan Fund. Extensive information can be found on our website.”
The Health Department oversees Mississippi’s drinking water revolving loan fund, a program that lends municipalities federal money to make water infrastructure upgrades. But the agency, NAACP argued in its complaint, has limited the benefits of those loans by capping loan forgiveness at $500,000 and enforcing a stricter repayment period than what Congress allows for.
“While MDEQ would like to provide all the relevant information to demonstrate the inaccuracies contained in the complaint, Title VI prohibits any actions which may be deemed retaliatory,” MDEQ spokeswoman Jan Schaefer told Mississippi Today. “For that reason, our attorneys have advised against any comments from MDEQ related to this matter until the matter has been concluded. We will cooperate with the process while continuing our efforts to protect the environment and the health and safety of the entire population of the State of Mississippi.”
The letter says that the EPA’s Office of External Civil Rights Compliance (OECRC) will contact MSDH and MDEQ in the next 10 days to explain the investigation and potential resolutions.
The NAACP also requested that the EPA include the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration in the investigation, but the federal agency declined.
Today’s letter comes days after U.S. Reps. Bennie Thompson and Carolyn Maloney announced their own investigation into the state’s spending, in which they’ve asked Gov. Tate Reeves to provide information on the state’s allotment of recent historic federal infrastructure funding.
Reeves’ office did not yet have a comment on the EPA’s letter when this story published.
Earlier on Thursday, Jackson announced it released its own request for proposals (RFP) for a contractor to operate the city’s water plants, tanks, and well system. On Monday, Reeves accused Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba of withdrawing from the state’s unified effort to fix the Jackson water system because the mayor wouldn’t participate in the state’s contract procurement. Lumumba responded that city should have the final say on the RFP before it’s published.
While the state’s request “accurately reflects the scope of work,” the city said in a statement, Jackson’s request includes “specific terms” from the EPA that weren’t in the state’s request.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.