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Why Jackson residents don't trust the government to fix dirty water problem
05:13 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The Environmental Protection Agency has opened a federal civil rights investigation into the state of Mississippi over the Jackson water crisis.

On Thursday, in response to complaints filed by the NAACP and Jackson residents, the EPA announced it will investigate whether the Mississippi Department of Health and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality “discriminated against the majority Black population of the City of Jackson on the basis of race in the funding of water infrastructure and treatment programs and activities,” the announcement said.

An official with the US Environmental Protection Agency told CNN the two state agencies have acknowledged receiving the EPA’s letter on the probe. The official said the investigation should wrap up within about four months.

An EPA spokesperson told CNN Friday should the EPA find wrongdoing, it has the power to withhold federal funds from the state of Mississippi but would be careful not to deprive Jackson of funds needed to ensure safe and reliable drinking water.

The spokesperson also said the EPA is prepared to refer the case to the US Department of Justice should the two state agencies fail to cooperate with the investigation.

The NAACP praised the EPA’s action.

“Today’s decision by the EPA is a significant first step in holding the state accountable for its role in exacerbating the Jackson water crisis,” said NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Director Abré Conner. “For far too long, residents of Jackson, like Black communities across this country, have had water access weaponized against them.”

The city of roughly 150,000 residents is 83% Black.

Neither the agencies nor the office of Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves have responded to CNN’s request for comment since Thursday’s announcement.

The water crisis got so bad for several months this year the National Guard was dispatched to help distribute bottled water around the city, which is Mississippi’s capital.

Resident Virginia Evans told CNN recently the water problems have been so troubling she remains afraid to drink or cook with it despite state officials lifting a more-than 40-day boil-water notice last month and declaring the water safe.

In the past six months, sometimes her toilets wouldn’t flush or the water coming out the faucets at her home was brown and had low pressure, she said.

The city has long faced issues with its water system. Residents and activists point to years of systemic neglect as one of the main drivers. Some city leaders have blamed the state for not answering their calls for assistance with upgrading the decrepit water system.

According to the most recent data from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, the state’s water crisis bill for the year has reached $12.6 million. Bottled water for distribution events accounts for about 25% of that amount.

The EPA has pressed the city for improvements for years, and in September, the US 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, the Justice Department told CNN last month in a statement.

It was no invitation for polite chitchat, as the highest law enforcement office in the land warned it was prepared to file a lawsuit under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which charges the EPA with setting and enforcing baseline health standards for tap water.

CNN’s Steve Almasy, Nicquel Terry Ellis and Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.