NAACP, former mayor seek civil rights investigation into state’s ‘disinvestment’ in Jackson’s water system

FILE - Volunteers distribute cases of water at a community/fraternal drive-thru water...
FILE - Volunteers distribute cases of water at a community/fraternal drive-thru water distribution site in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 7, 2022. The NAACP said Tuesday, 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)(Rogelio V. Solis | AP)
Published: Sep. 28, 2022 at 1:46 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A former Jackson mayor is among petitioners asking the EPA to determine whether the state discriminated against Jackson when doling out federal dollars for water and wastewater projects.

Tuesday, the NAACP filed a civil rights complaint with EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights seeking an “immediate investigation into the use of federal funds related to drinking water in Jackson.”

Petitioners, which include the National NAACP, the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, former Mayor Harvey Johnson, and others, are asking for “the rapid adoption of comprehensive enforcement remedies” to address the problem.

“For years, the state of Mississippi, its agencies, instrumentalities, and officials have discriminated on the basis of race against the city of Jackson, and its majority-Black population by diverting federal funds awarded to ensure safe drinking water and unpolluted surface waters and groundwaters,” the complaint states. “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.”

Johnson, who served as mayor from 1997 to 2005 and again from 2009 to 2013, says he hopes the investigation would lead to a change in policy regarding the allocation of infrastructure funding.

“Cities that have a high incident of poverty, a high percentage of disadvantaged neighborhoods... perhaps this will engender some policy changes at the national and state level to make sure that people in need in these communities in [Mississippi] and throughout the country receive relief,” he said.

The complaint was filed on September 27, less than a month after the equipment failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant led to a near-shutdown of Jackson’s water system. It seeks an investigation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

According to EPA’s website, Title VI says “all federal agencies, including EPA, are required to ensure that federal funds do not subsidize programs or activities that discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin.”

EPA has confirmed that it has received the complaint, and says it is now under “jurisdictional review by our Office of External Civil Rights Compliance to determine if an investigation is appropriate. That determination is expected within the next 25 days.”

Petitioners say that the city’s water crisis is “a continuation of repeated incidents where the... residents of Jackson either had no public water at all or were provided with water from their taps that violated applicable federal drinking water standards.”

“At the root of this crisis is discrimination in the state’s administration of federal funding resources. The state has refused to make adequate federal funds available to Jackson and has prevented Jackson from developing other means of financial support to address the water system’s challenges.”

Abre’ Conner, director of the Center for Environmental and Climate Justice with NAACP, testified about the issue at a Homeland Security Committee hearing on September 21.

She told committee members that since 1996, Mississippi has received annual federal dollars to address drinking water needs. However, Jackson received a portion of that funding just two times. Conner’s testimony to Congress was later updated after NAACP learned that the city had received funding three times. That change also was reflected in the complaint filed with EPA.

Complaint details how it says the state has denied federal funding to Jackson to help shore up...
Complaint details how it says the state has denied federal funding to Jackson to help shore up its water system.(WLBT)

She told WLBT that “the decades-long pattern of neglect” has continued with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, as evidenced by the intended use plans the state submitted to the feds to review.

The law, which was passed in November, directs hundreds of millions of dollars to the state over the next few years to address a myriad of infrastructure needs, including $75 million for safe drinking water, according to a White House news release.

In December, EPA Administrator Michael Regan sent a letter to Gov. Tate Reeves to address “longstanding environmental and economic injustices across America,” and said that half of the $44 billion in SRF loans under the law would be eligible for distribution as grants or to be “fully forgivable loans.”

Despite that request, NAACP officials say that under the state’s current plans, Jackson will get very little of that funding.

“The money that is actually supposed to be for historically disadvantaged communities, the state first drafted an intended use plan that would have completely removed Jackson from being able to get funding at all,” Conner said. “And that funding requirement, where the max was at $2 million, when the state revised the intended use plan [so that] Jackson could potentially apply, the funding cap has now gone down to $500,000. For a city as large as Jackson, that’s not going to be cut it.”

Abre' Conner says the state has discriminated against Jackson when it comes to allocating federal funds for water improvements.

Documents obtained by WLBT show that in December, the city estimated it would need around $21 million to address priority needs at the O.B. Curtis plant, more than 40 times what the state is willing to forgive under BIL.

Meanwhile, a 2013 assessment conducted by Neel-Schaffer Engineering showed Jackson needed $405 million to address needs across its water system, an amount that would be nearly $515 million today based on inflation.

Since 2016, Jackson has received $79.8 million in state revolving fund loans for water and sewer work from the Mississippi State Department of Health and Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, of which the state has forgiven $1.5 million, records show.

The complaint goes on to state that since 2020, Mississippi’s Republican leadership has denied several requests from Jackson to help address its problems, including vetoing infrastructure funding in S.B. 2856 and rejecting a one-percent sales tax to fund water and sewer repairs.

2856 would have allowed Jackson to create a program to help customers with past due bills, in the wake of Jackson’s ongoing billing crisis. Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed the bill that year, saying it only applied to the city of Jackson, would have allowed politicians to forgive water bills, and had no end date.

However, the following year, Reeves signed similar legislation that included more state oversight. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba unveiled the plan in July 2021. WLBT recently filed an open record request to find out how many people had signed up for the program, but no records with that information existed, according to the city’s response to that request.

Contrary to the complaint’s claims, District 26 Sen. John Hohrn says the state has provided significant help to the city, including the Capitol Complex Improvement District and the one-percent infrastructure sales tax. The state provides funding to address public projects, such as sidewalk work, in the CCID. The infrastructure sales tax, meanwhile, places a one-percent tax on certain transactions in the city. Revenues generated by that assessment can be used solely for infrastructure.

Horhn also points to the state stepping in during the August/September water crisis. “If it had not been for the state, I don’t know where Jackson would be now,” he said.

In late August, Gov. Reeves announced that he was mobilizing several state agencies to take over operations at the Curtis plant and to help distribute water until service could be restored. Water service was restored to most customers days after the takeover, and a boil water notice that had been in place since July was lifted on September 15.

The complaint, though, says the city has been barred from using that revenue source on water, and that the tax is governed by a commission that “leaves Jackson’s elected officials with minority representation” in determining how the one-percent revenue is spent.

The commission, which is made up of 10 appointed members, determined early on that one-percent money would go to roads, bridges, and drainage because the city had an enterprise fund to cover water/sewer needs.

The city’s enterprise fund, though, is not generating nearly enough revenue to cover improvements due to complications with its billing system brought about by the Siemens contract. The city brought on Siemens to completely overhaul Jackson’s billing system under Mayor Harvey Johnson, one of the petitioners seeking the civil rights investigation.

Citing the lack of revenues, the commission has given the city more than $23 million in one-percent money to cover water and sewer needs, mainly in the form of loans. However, Jackson refused to pay that money back.

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