The NAACP filed a federal complaint on Tuesday accusing Mississippi state officials of violating civil rights law by repeatedly diverting federal funds intended to ensure safe drinking water away from Jackson, the state’s predominantly black capital, to smaller white communities.
Their numbers led to racial profiling and a devastating loss of access to clean water for more than a month for residents of Jackson, where more than 80% of residents are black and a quarter live in poverty.
“The result is persistently unsafe and unreliable drinking water and massive gaps in access to safe drinking water that are intolerable in any modern society,” Jackson residents allege in the complaint. “Nearly every Jackson resident has seen brackish, dirty, impure and unsafe water dripping from their taps. Sometimes some have had no water at all.”
The complaint, filed with the Environmental Protection Agency, increases pressure on Mississippi and Jackson officials to address longstanding water infrastructure problems that recently forced Jackson to shut off its water supply in late August and maintain a notice to boil water for weeks.
Last week, a group of Jackson residents also archived a federal class action lawsuit against current and former city and state officials, as well as an engineering firm seeking monetary damages for the officials’ negligence.
The NAACP’s complaint to the EPA, which has 25 days to decide whether to investigate it, notes that Jackson leaders have “repeatedly requested” help from officials in the Republican-controlled state to “provide funding solutions.” Instead, “the majority black population of Jackson has been repeatedly ignored, scorned, or ridiculed,” the complaint states.
In the last 25 years, the city has received federal funding to address the drinking water problem only three times. At the same time, since 2016, the city has imposed more than 750 advisories for residents to boil water, about 40% of which came in the last two years.
Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP and a resident of Jackson, blamed the “racist funding policies” of Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, and state officials that prevented the construction of critical and preventative infrastructure. Johnson described in the complaint how he and his family often used boiled and bottled water even when the city was not under an advisory because he “cannot trust his family’s health to the crumbling water system.” “.
The city, where more than 80% of residents are black and a quarter live in poverty, relies on federal funds in part because it has seen a shrinking tax base since white residents fled the area in the decade since. to the integration of public schools. Since Mississippi is one of 49 states where the EPA allows the state to decide how water systems are financed, it leaves authority over whether those funds are distributed equitably to the state. The EPA inspector general announced in mid-September that he would investigate Jackson’s “drinking water emergency,” Politico reported.
The complaint alleges that state officials have exacerbated the funding gap by repeatedly denying Jackson the ability to fund improvements to its drinking water system. In March 2021, when, after a previous water shutoff, Jackson’s mayor, Chokwe Lumumba requested $47 million in emergency aid. , and the state legislature approved just $3 million.
“The people of Jackson, Mississippi, have lacked access to safe, reliable water for decades,” EPA Administrator Michael Regen, who visited the city Monday and met with the city’s mayor, said in a statement. “These conditions are unacceptable in the United States of America.”
In the past decade, such conditions have become part of the plight of communities of color in other cities like Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, where lead-ridden water has plagued ailing water infrastructure systems. . Abre’ Conner, director of environmental and climate justice for the NAACP, said Jackson’s mishandling of the water crisis is part of a “long history of mistreatment and neglect of Black communities, putting at risk the lives of men, Women and children.
“As our infrastructure continues to age and the effects of climate change worsen, we will continue to experience Jackson-like crises, not just in Mississippi but in predominantly Black communities across the country,” he said in a statement.