NAACP and former mayor call for civil rights inquiry into state’s ‘divestment’ in Jackson’s water system

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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 distributing federal dollars for water and sanitation projects. ‘waste.

On Tuesday, the NAACP filed a civil rights complaint with the 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.” .

The petitioners, which include the National NAACP, the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, former Mayor Harvey Johnson and others, are calling for “speedy passage of enforcement action complete” to solve the problem.

“For years, the state of Mississippi, its agencies, instruments, and officials have racially discriminated against the city of Jackson and its predominantly black population by misappropriating federal funds awarded to ensure safe drinking water and unpolluted surface water and groundwater,” the complaint states.

“This discrimination is evident in the fact that the state has repeatedly deprived Jackson of federal funds to maintain its public drinking water system in favor of funding smaller, predominantly white communities with less acute needs.”

The lawsuit was filed Sept. 27, less than a month after equipment failures at the OB Curtis water treatment plant caused Jackson’s water system to shut down almost completely.

The EPA has confirmed that it has received the complaint and says it is now undergoing “jurisdictional review by our External Civil Rights Compliance Office to determine whether an investigation is appropriate.”

The petitioners say the city’s water crisis is “a series of repeated incidents where the…residents of Jackson either had no public water at all or received 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 refused to make adequate federal funds available to Jackson and prevented Jackson from developing other means of financial support to address water system challenges.

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

She told committee members that since 1996, Mississippi has received annual federal dollars to meet drinking water needs. However, Jackson only received part of this funding twice. (The complaint says the state provided funding three times through the Mississippi State Department of Health and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality during this time.)

The complaint details how he says the state denied Jackson federal funding to help shore up its water system.(WLBT)

She told WLBT that the “lack of divestment” has continued with bipartisan infrastructure law, as evidenced by the intended use plans the state has submitted to the federal government for review.

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

“So the money that’s actually supposed to go to historically disadvantaged communities, the state first drafted an intended use plan that would have completely precluded Jackson from being able to get any funding at all,” he said. she stated.

Conner said the plan was later revised to allow Jackson to apply for loan forgiveness through the program. However, the total amount cities could apply for had been reduced from $2 million to $500,000. “For a city as big as Jackson, it’s not going to be cut,” she said.

Documents from December 2021 show that Jackson alone needed about $21 million to meet priority needs at the OB Curtis plant. A 2013 water system assessment conducted by Neel-Schaffer Engineering showed that Jackson needed $405 million to meet system needs, an amount that today would rise to nearly $515 million in function of inflation.

The lawsuit goes on to state that since 2020, Mississippi’s Republican leadership has denied several requests from Jackson to help with its issues, including its veto of infrastructure funding in SB 2856 and the rejection of a sales tax of 1% to fund water and sewer repairs.

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

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

Contrary to the claims in the complaint, District 26 Sen. John Hohrn says the state has provided significant assistance to the city, including the Capitol Complex Improvement District and the $1 Infrastructure Sales Tax. %. The state provides funds to meet public projects, such as sidewalk work, in the CCID. The Infrastructure Sales Tax, on the other hand, imposes a 1% tax on certain transactions within the city. Revenue generated from this assessment can be used for infrastructure only.

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

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

The complaint, however, says the city is barred from using this source of water revenue and that the tax is governed by a commission that “leaves Jackson’s elected officials with minority representation” to determine how 1% revenue is spent.

The commission, made up of 10 appointed members, determined early on that one percent of the money would go to roads, bridges and drainage because the city had a corporate fund to cover water and in sewers.

The city’s enterprise fund, however, does not generate enough revenue to cover improvements due to complications in its billing system caused by the Siemens contract. The city brought in Siemens to completely overhaul Jackson’s billing system under Mayor Harvey Johnson, one of the petitioners calling for the civil rights inquiry.

Citing lack of revenue, the commission awarded the city more than $23 million in 1% cash to cover water and sewer needs, mostly in the form of loans. However, Jackson refused to refund that money.

WLBT has contacted the governor’s office for comment, but has not yet received a response.

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