The calls to quickly fix Jackson, Mississippi’s water system are growing louder, with the US Justice Department and NAACP demanding not just answers from the state and its capital city, but solutions.
Days after the NAACP wrote Gov. Tate Reeves directly, the civil rights organization submitted a 25-page complaint to the US Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, requesting “an immediate investigation into the use of federal funds related to drinking water in Jackson and to seek the rapid adoption of comprehensive enforcement remedies.”
Mississippi has discriminated against the predominantly Black residents of Jackson “by diverting federal funds awarded to ensure safe drinking water and unpolluted surface waters and groundwater,” according to the NAACP letter requesting a civil rights investigation known as a Title VI.
A provision of the Civil Rights Act, Title VI prohibits discrimination under any program receiving federal funding.
Mississippi’s “consistent lack of investment is reflected in Jackson’s crumbling drinking water infrastructure, including aging supply and distribution lines that are so fragile that they do not allow the system to maintain sufficient pressure,” the complaint says. “Indeed, the degraded condition of these lines exacerbates the problems facing Jackson’s public water system.”
It adds, “The State has not only blocked Jackson’s efforts to secure tax revenue and other streams of funding from the legislature, but it has also systematically and continuously limited Jackson’s access to necessary federal funds.”
CNN has reached out to the governor’s office.
EPA cites 300 boil-water alerts
The EPA has pressed Jackson for improvements for years, and on Monday the Justice Department, on behalf of the environmental agency, asked the city to “engage in immediate negotiations related to the City’s recent drinking water crisis,” according to a letter obtained by CNN affiliate WAPT. Officials from both agencies met with the mayor Monday, the Justice Department told CNN in a statement.
It was no invitation for polite chit-chat, as the highest law enforcement office in the land warned it was prepared to file a lawsuit under the federal Safe Water Drinking Act, which charges the EPA with setting and enforcing baseline health standards for tap water. The EPA launched an investigation into Jackson’s water crisis this month.
Citing some 300 boil-water alerts and “multiple line breaks” over two years, and the flood-related system failure in August that left people without reliable running water for days – and under a continuous boil-water alert for almost seven weeks – the Justice Department issued stark language in its letter to Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and the city’s lawyers.
“The United States also believes that an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health exists,” read the letter.
The Justice Department declined to provide a copy of the letter to CNN but said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim and EPA Administrator Michael Regan met with Lumumba in Jackson on Monday to discuss “the actions the federal government is prepared to take to ensure a sustainable water supply that protects public health in Jackson and addresses longstanding environmental justice issues facing the City’s residents.”
Regan in a Monday thread on Twitter described the situation as a “longstanding injustice” and said, “It’s clear the people of Jackson, Mississippi have suffered long enough.” He and Kim conveyed the federal agencies’ desire to “reach a judicially enforceable agreement that ensures a sustainable water system in the mid- and long-terms,” he tweeted.
Lumumba’s office declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Feds cite numerous violations
In requesting a meeting this week, the Justice Department says it wants a comprehensive plan, a schedule for exacting the plan, and a “discussion of accountability mechanisms such as temporary third-party management of the system.”
Saying the city and state “have not acted to protect public health,” the department alleges there are and likely will continue to be contaminants in the drinking water and outlines violations of state and federal provisions, as well as an emergency EPA order. Among them:
- Failure to staff treatment plants with “Class A operators”;
- Failure to implement an alternative water supply plan;
- Failure to comply with a timeline for “general filter rehabilitation”;
- Failure to install corrosion control per federal rules on lead and copper;
- Exceeding limits for turbidity (cloudiness) and for the five most common “haloacetic acids” found in drinking water, which are formed during the disinfection process.
The Justice Department also demands the city address its violations of the Clean Water Act at its wastewater system, as well as violations of a consent decree into which it entered with the EPA in 2012 after the agency accused it of allowing unauthorized sewage overflows.
The letter arrived as lawyers prepare lawsuits on behalf of at least 2,000 Jackson children – and counting – alleging that the city and state failed to adequately warn their residents about lead in the drinking water and failed to repair the system. The city and state have said the lawsuits are without merit.
Four Jackson residents also have filed a proposed class-action lawsuit – targeting past and present city officials, including Lumumba – alleging a long history of issues with the water.
“Jackson’s water supply was not fit for human consumption due to the high levels of lead and other contaminants, in violation of Plaintiffs’ right to bodily integrity protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” the suit says.
Lumumba concurs with the plaintiffs that the city has experienced “challenges” for decades, and while he was limited on what he could discuss amid litigation, he said he and his predecessors have long been “lifting up the issues of our water distribution system.” It is “beyond the fiscal ability of the city to address those challenges,” which is why he has reached out to the Legislature for help, he said.
“We share our residents’ resolve and desire for the system to be corrected. I think that this lawsuit just aims the arrow at the wrong target,” he told CNN over the weekend.
NAACP: State has tried to ‘hobble’ Jackson
Last week, the NAACP issued a harsh summation of state efforts to resolve the issue and warned Gov. Reeves that the state’s plans to spend federal infrastructure dollars fall short in serving the majority-Black city.
“The Biden Administration has urged prioritization of historically disadvantaged communities in the allocation and distribution of federal investments,” the letter from NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said. “Mississippi’s current (intended use plan) will ensure the opposite result.”
The state is refusing to prioritize Jackson, Johnson wrote to Reeves, and it has a long history of doing so. Longtime residents say the city demographics began to shift in the 1960s, when federal desegregation rulings spurred White flight, draining the city’s tax base and leaving its infrastructure a mess.
The city of roughly 150,000, which was 60% White a half-century ago, is 83% Black today. One in four residents lives in poverty, and the individual annual income is about $23,000.
Johnson, who lives in Jackson, continued, “We are deeply concerned by the state’s consistent efforts to hobble one of the largest Black cities in America. This is the state capital, and your Administration continues to fumble opportunities to help Jackson residents.
“History reflects Black Mississippians are resilient and committed to progress and self-determination, often in the face of actions intended to erode Black agency. Echoing this past, the state has resisted efforts to improve a fundamental resource – water – in its majority-Black and Black-led state capital.”
Johnson closed by asking the EPA to reject the state’s spending plan “until the funding formula is revised.”
Reeves could not immediately be reached for comment on the NAACP letter, but in announcing that the lengthy boil-water alert was being lifted on September 15, Reeves said that since Mississippi had “stepped in to fix Jackson’s water system,” the state had increased water output, restored pressure, installed an emergency rental pump, fixed broken parts and monitored the water quality.
Where Lumumba has declared a local emergency, Reeves has issued a state of emergency and activated the National Guard, delivering 11 million bottles of water to residents as of mid-month.
“The state created an incident command structure and surged resources to the city’s water treatment facility to conduct emergency maintenance, repairs, and improvements,” a news release from Reeves’ office said. “Jackson’s water system will continue to be monitored and … additional testing will be administered to ensure continued water quality.”
CNN’s Sabrina Clay, Hannah Rabinowitz, Jade Gordon and Fredricka Whitfield contributed to this report.