Racial bias did not shape Mississippi's water funding decisions for capital city, EPA says

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it found “insufficient evidence” that racial discrimination shaped decisions made by two Mississippi agencies about water system funding for the state's majority-Black capital city of Jackson.

The EPA's Office of External Civil Rights Compliance issued its findings this week about the investigation it started in October 2022 into the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the Mississippi State Department of Health.

The EPA announced its probe weeks after the national and state branches of the NAACP and nine Jackson residents filed a complaint alleging the state had a "practice of systematically depriving Jackson the funds that it needs to operate and maintain its water facilities in a safe and reliable manner.”

Jackson's water system nearly collapsed in late August 2022 after heavy rainfall and flooding exacerbated longstanding problems. Many people in the city of 150,000 lacked water for drinking, flushing or bathing for several weeks. A federally appointed administrator has been in charge of Jackson water since late 2022 and the federal government has approved $600 million for improvements to the city system.

The EPA wrote in its findings Monday that it investigated specific questions, including whether the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality’s funding of water infrastructure and treatment programs is discriminatory.

The department's executive director, Chris Wells, said Wednesday that his agency was already following federal regulations.

“The evidence overwhelmingly shows that the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality did everything right,” Wells said. “These allegations were entirely false and have been a distraction to the mission of our agency.”

The Health Department said in a statement that it is “committed to the equal opportunity for all counties, municipalities, districts and other water organizations” to have access to a loan program for water system improvements.

Derrick Johnson, national president of the NAACP, lives in Jackson.

“The NAACP is outraged at the inadequate findings presented by the EPA this week," Johnson said in a statement Thursday. "Since day one of this crisis, we have been on the ground, speaking with residents and community leaders. One thing remains clear — racial discrimination and neglect have left a majority Black, capital city in crisis."

Johnson said the NAACP hopes Mississippi government leaders will enact EPA’s recommendations, including that the Health Department assess its loan terms to ensure that communities with the greatest needs have access to water funding.

“The NAACP remains committed to using every tool at our disposal to ensure that all Black Americans have access to clean drinking water,” Johnson said.

The EPA examined state water fund loans to Mississippi communities between 1989 and 2021 and evaluated those based on the percentage of Black residents. Jackson's population was about 56% Black and 44% white in 1990, and the city's current population is about 82% Black and 15% white, according to the Census Bureau.

The EPA wrote that “funding for Jackson did not decrease as the racial composition of Jackson changed during the period analyzed" and the analysis found "no statistically significant relationship between loan amount and race across the state over time.”

The Department of Environmental Quality provided water loans to Jackson 13 times since 1990 — every time the city applied.

“Although Jackson falls on the lower end of per capita funding ... there was no significant relationship between loan amounts per person and race over time,” the EPA said.

The EPA also wrote that “the impacts of the water crisis fell disproportionately on the majority Black community of Jackson,” but “there is insufficient evidence to establish a relationship between the amount of funding disbursed by MDEQ to Jackson over time and the racial composition of the community.”

Jackson received three loans from a water improvement fund administered by the Health Department between 1997 and 2022, and the department told the EPA it never failed to approve completed applications from the capital city.

“For the years Jackson received loan awards, it received a large proportion of the total funding available for those years,” the EPA wrote.