MDEQ refuses EPA’s offer to resolve civil rights complaint; says discrimination claims are not true

Published: Jan. 20, 2023 at 11:26 AM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Officials with one state agency under federal investigation for discriminating against the city of Jackson have refused to enter into discussions to resolve it, maintaining the claims that sparked the investigation are false.

Last fall, the Environmental Protection Agency Office of External Civil Rights Compliance opened a civil rights inquiry into whether the state violated the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by failing to fund water and wastewater projects in the capital city.

In the agency’s crosshairs are the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the Mississippi State Department of Health, which distribute federal water and wastewater improvement funds through their respective revolving loan programs.

According to a December 23 letter to MDEQ Executive Director Christopher Wells, EPA offered to enter into informal talks to resolve the complaint, but the state agency refused.

“We believe the allegations in the complaint are false,” MDEQ Communications Director Jan Schaefer said in a statement.

Abre’ Conner, director of the Center for Environmental and Climate Justice with NAACP, said MDEQ’s decision not to sit down with EPA “tracks and is on par with how the state has responded to the city of Jackson in a number of different ways... Refusing to listen to the residents prior to this complaint being filed, refusing to listen to the leadership of the city of Jackson when they’ve asked for additional funding.”

“And right now, they have an opportunity to actually hear from folks, to actually hear how they can be better, and they’re deciding to refuse that opportunity to be a better agency on behalf of the residents of Jackson,” she said. “I think that’s very telling of how they have mistreated, how they have intentionally moved funding away from the city of Jackson.”

In a December 16 letter to EPA, Wells denies his agency has ever discriminated against Jackson, telling the federal agency that Jackson had received every loan it applied for and that the agency itself had implemented several procedures and policies to prevent environmental racism.

Wells also called out the NAACP, saying the group “failed to allege a single fact to support any argument that MDEQ discriminated against the city... either through intent or effect.”

Days after Wells fired off his response, the EPA shot back, telling the state agency it needed more information, and that MDEQ had 30 days to provide it.

The letter also said that MDEQ’s failure to respond to its offer to “discuss options for informally resolving... the complaint” meant that EPA would move forward with its plans to release preliminary findings in the case within 180 days, per federal statute. Had MDEQ agreed, EPA would have paused the 180-day clock.

EPA launched the investigation on October 20, meaning that preliminary findings will be released on or before April 18, 2023.

Among items, EPA is seeking information on the methods it uses to distribute wastewater funding, its role in receiving and processing applications for that funding, and the “extent to which MDEQ is directed or advised by other state agencies, the governor or the state legislature.”

The letter also seeks to find out whether MDEQ collects and maintains “racial/ethnic and national origin data as required under [federal law]” and whether the agency coordinates with other federal, state, or local agencies to determine “the potential for discriminatory impacts... [and] compliance with civil rights laws” in distributing federal funds.

In his letter, Wells says MDEQ has policies in place to ensure Title VI compliance and finalized its environmental justice strategy in 2003. Wells added that MDEQ hired its first environmental justice coordinator in 2002 and created its Office of Community Engagement in 2010. In 2013 and 2015, that office provided training on Executive Order No. 12898.

Executive Order No. 12898, according to the EPA’s website, was issued by President Bill Clinton to “focus federal attention on the environmental and human health effects of federal actions on minority and low-income populations with the goal of achieving environmental protection for all.”

Wells also told the compliance office that MDEQ implemented a “Basics of Environmental Justice Course” in 2015, and in 2018 adopted a plan to better serve individuals with limited proficiency in the English language.

In September, the National NAACP, the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, former Mayor Harvey Johnson, and others asked the EPA to look into whether the state violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in distributing federal funds to Jackson for water and sewer work.

The complaint was filed at the height of Jackson’s August/September water crisis, which left tens of thousands of people in the capital without water for days, and in some cases, weeks. NAACP claims state disinvestment in the city’s water system led to the failures that sparked the crisis.

The association also asked the EPA to look into the state’s disinvestment in Jackson’s wastewater system.

“MSDH and MSDEQ both received funds from the EPA to provide safe drinking water and wastewater, and were aware of Jackson’s severe needs, but distributed to the city only a small fraction and disproportionately low amount,” the complaint stated. The EPA launched the investigation the following month.

Wells countered NAACP’s claims, saying Jackson received more than $116 million in wastewater revolving fund loans since 1992, a greater share of the funding than did other municipalities.

Reports in Jackson Jambalaya, meanwhile, revealed that Jackson only applied for water loans from MSDH three times, and in each case, received the total amount sought.

Want more WLBT news in your inbox? Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.