Mississippi agency denies NAACP's water discrimination claim

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi environmental regulator has denied claims that the state agency he leads discriminated against the capital city of Jackson in its distribution of federal funds for wastewater treatment.

In a recently unearthed letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Executive Director Christopher Wells wrote that the NAACP has “failed to allege a single fact to support” its argument that the agency discriminated against Jackson. He said he believed the ongoing civil rights investigation into the matter was politically motivated.

“Jackson received a loan for every completed application it submitted,” Wells wrote. “And, because the amount of the loan is based on the cost of the project, no loans were reduced for any reason that could be considered discriminatory.”

Disruptions to Jackson's water services have ailed the city for years, and its system nearly collapsed in late August after heavy rainfall exacerbated problems at the city's main water treatment plant. Most of Jackson lost running water for several days, and people had to wait in lines for water to drink, cook, bathe and flush toilets.

Wells' Dec. 16 letter was sent almost three months after the NAACP filed a federal complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids federal fund recipients from discriminating on the basis of race or national origin. The complaint said that Mississippi officials “all but assured” a drinking water calamity by depriving Jackson of badly needed funds to upgrade its infrastructure.

Over 25 years, Jackson received funds from an important federal program only three times, the NAACP said. When Jackson tried to fund improvements itself, those efforts were repeatedly blocked by state political leaders, according to the complaint.

The EPA announced on Oct. 20 that it was investigating whether Mississippi state agencies discriminated against the state’s majority-Black capital city by refusing to fund improvements to the water system. EPA Administrator Michael Regan has visited Jackson multiple times and has said “longstanding discrimination” has contributed to the decline of the city’s water system.

The federal agency could withhold money from Mississippi if it finds wrongdoing — potentially millions of dollars. If the state agencies don’t cooperate with the investigation, the EPA could refer the case to the Department of Justice.

In his letter, Wells wrote that alleged Title VI violations are “based on unarticulated and evolving standards” and would run “counter to this nation’s system of federalism,” WLBT-TV reported.

Wells wrote that the EPA investigation is “part and parcel of a political effort to divert attention away from the city of Jackson’s own failures.” He contends that Jackson's water woes are results of city mismanagement rather than discrimination by the state.

The EPA had been aware of Jackson's water problems for years, including when the city entered into a consent decree with the agency in 2012 after it was cited for violating the Clean Water Act, Wells wrote.

Competing claims over the cause of the capital city's water trouble has ignited tension between local officials in Jackson, a Democratic stronghold, and Mississippi's Republican state leaders.

The AP reported in September that when Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves was the state treasurer in 2011, he touted his own track record of fiscal conservatism by citing his opposition to spending state money for water and sewer projects in Jackson. The EPA is not investigating Reeves.

Ahead of the water crisis last summer, people in Jackson had been advised to boil water before consuming it because health officials obtained samples that showed the water could be dangerous to consume. That advisory remained in place until mid-September.

The problems returned again during Christmas weekend when frigid weather caused water lines to break and the city’s water distribution system failed to produce adequate pressure. Boil water notices in some city neighborhoods remained in place until Jan. 7.

Jackson is set to receive nearly $800 million in federal funds for its water system, the bulk of which comes from the $1.7 trillion spending bill that Congress passed in December.

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

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