U.S. EPA opens civil rights probe into Mississippi capital's water crisis

Flowers are seen in front of the headquarters of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C.
Flowers are seen in front of the headquarters of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Oct 20 (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday opened an investigation into Mississippi state agencies to determine if they violated civil rights in the majority Black city of Jackson in the course of funding of the city's water infrastructure.

At the request of civil rights organizations, the EPA said it agreed to investigate Mississippi's Department of Health and Department of Environmental Quality to determine if they had "discriminated against the majority Black population of Jackson, Mississippi, on the basis of race, by intent or effect, in its funding of water infrastructure and treatment programs."

Representatives of those two departments and the office of Governor Tate Reeves did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Jackson, the state capital of 150,000 people that is more than 80% Black, has suffered from chronically poor water quality, and lost water to most of the city for several days in August when complications from floodwaters knocked a water treatment plant offline.

Even before that crisis, the city had been under a boil water notice due to "elevated turbidity levels," meaning the water appear cloudy. That followed a string of disruptions to the city's water supply in recent years caused by high lead levels, bacterial contamination and storm damage.

Throughout the water shutdown and afterward, the crisis revealed tension between the state government of Reeves, a Republican who accused the city of mismanaging the water plant, and the city government of the Democratic Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who is African-American.

A spokesperson for Lumumba declined to comment on the EPA probe.

The NAACP, one of the groups requesting the probe, applauded the EPA's decision to examine what it called Mississippi's "decades-long pattern and practice of discriminating against the city of Jackson when it comes to providing federal funds to improve local water systems."

Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Aurora Ellis

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