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Investigation finds MDEQ did not racially discriminate against Jackson in funding water systems

Jackson Water plant
Photo by SuperTalk Mississippi News

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has been cleared of any wrongdoing in how it funds projects in Jackson.

Back in October 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a probe into MDEQ stemming from a TITLE VI complaint filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that the department racially discriminated against the state’s majority-Black capital city by refusing to fund improvements for the water systems. The investigation essentially found no evidence that MDEQ violated nondiscrimination regulations

“The evidence overwhelmingly shows that the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality did everything right,” MDEQ Executive Director Chris Wells said. “Our state is blessed to have its own environmental protection agency through the MDEQ. We are Mississippians regulating Mississippians, and MDEQ is comprised of very capable and fair engineers, scientists, geologists, lawyers, and other support staff — all who choose to live here and serve our great state. These allegations were entirely false and have been a distraction to the mission of our agency.”

In its report, the EPA did note that it found “identified deficiencies” regarding the implementation of certain non-binding procedural safeguards in MDEQ’s loan approval processes. However, Wells argued that the assertion was misleading since the department was already adhering to federal law.

“MDEQ was already doing everything required by the regulations,” Wells said. “The EPA is taking responsibility for updates and improvements which are not specifically required by the regulations and were in the works long before this complaint was filed.”

The EPA’s investigation was launched in the heat of the Jackson water crisis in which roughly 150,000 residents were without access to clean drinking tap water for a months-long period in 2021. Nonetheless, MDEQ officials maintained that the department not only never once discriminated against the capital city, but also approved loans for Jackson at a disproportionate rate compared to other cities.

Since Jackson entered a new sewage consent decree with the EPA in 2012, MDEQ has loaned the city over $86 million. According to Wells, in 2018, Jackson received over 54% of the loans from MDEQ’s revolving loan program, and in 2021, Jackson received nearly half of the loan money in approved projects.

A former MDEQ employee, on the condition of anonymity, corroborated Wells’ exertion. In a statement to SuperTalk Mississippi News, the former MDEQ employee said the department has already approved over $100 million in future wastewater projects for Jackson.

“Over half of the money in MDEQ-approved projects has gone to Jackson recently. Jackson has had around $100 million worth of projects and it’s all in phase one, phase two, or phase three. It’s a whole system,” the former MDEQ employee said. “The whole system has been approved to be replaced. It’s just a matter of time. It takes a decade or more to fix it all.”

Wells added that the EPA took much longer than its designated deadline of 180 days to conclude its investigation, further enhancing the MDEQ’s claims that it had abided by all federal rules and regulations. Meanwhile, the NAACP insists that the city of Jackson was discriminated against.

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