EPA watchdog launches investigations into Jackson water crisis

The EPA inspector general on Wednesday launched two formal reviews of a water outage that plunged the Mississippi capital into crisis mode in August, a decision that will shed light on both the federal response and the charges according to which the state has blocked funding to upgrade a beleaguered water treatment plant there.

The enhanced surveillance comes on the heels of EPA Administrator Micheal Regan’s fourth visit in a year to Jackson. On Tuesday, he appeared alongside Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and pledged to seek a “legally enforceable solution” for the management of the OB Curtis water treatment plant. Floodwaters from the swollen Pearl River contributed to problems at the facility this summer, fueling a drop in pressure and leaving 150,000 people without drinking water (green wireNovember 15).

The Office of the Inspector General in a version said he plans to assess the EPA’s response and oversight to drinking water contamination in Jackson, as well as conduct an audit of state-level funding and spending decisions and at the local level that could have fueled the crisis. The watchdog said the decision stemmed from information it began gathering in September (green wire, September 12).

“The EPA OIG acted quickly last September as it became apparent that a water contamination crisis was severely affecting the community of Jackson, Mississippi,” Inspector General Sean O’Donnell said in a statement. “Based on what we learned through an initial field investigation, my office will now pursue formal and comprehensive reviews to fully understand how the EPA conducted water system oversight and how revolving funds state drinking water have been allocated and spent.”

The inspector general said he planned to release the final reports of the two Jackson-related reviews between July and September next year, but warned the timeline could change.

The EPA did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

O’Donnell stressed that the IG takes the work of monitoring and responding to environmental emergencies seriously and gave a nod to the watchdog’s investigations into lead crises in the Michigan towns of Benton Harbor and Flint, as well as a fuel spill at a storage facility in Hawaii.

In recent years, the IG has blasted the EPA for a ‘delayed’ response to the disaster that erupted in Flint, Michigan, in 2014 when authorities began drawing drinking water from the Flint River without treatment. adequate, not preventing leaching of lead from service lines. in the distribution system.

The inspector general is also reviewing the EPA’s response in Benton Harbor, Michigan, another majority-black town on Lake Michigan where residents have struggled for years with higher lead levels in their tap water. what the federal government considers acceptable.

While the EPA has said it is offering guidance and oversight as Michigan deals with the crisis there, activists say responses from states and the federal government have been slow and the EPA is n would not have taken enforcement action without their repeated calls to action (green wireJune 23).

money and surveillance

The two IG investigations will likely shed light on the EPA’s oversight of longstanding personnel and maintenance issues that have plagued Jacksons water system, as well as accusations that the city has faced barriers to accessing federal dollars.

The first investigation will specifically look at drinking water safety law violations in the City of Jackson’s community water system, work the watchdog says will affect EPA headquarters, the agency’s Region 4 office, the Mississippi State Department of Health, and the City of Jackson. .

The OB Curtis plant has fallen on the EPA’s radar for years, including fault-finding inspections to consent executive orders and as a focal point of the Biden administration’s environmental justice push (green wireAugust 31).

The EPA Inspector General is also carrying out an audit identify state and local “allocation and spending decisions” related to the Jackson water system, with a focus on the state’s revolving funds for clean water and l ‘potable water.

Funding around Jackson’s water crisis has already sparked congressional investigations, a civil rights lawsuit and fueled a clash between the city’s mayor and Republican leaders in the state.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves (right) earlier this month dismissed accusations that his administration blocked funding from reaching Jackson, instead blaming the city for “continued and historic mismanagement” of the system water, saying the facility went from making a profit in 2012 to a $17 million deficit in 2019.

Reeves’ comments came in response to both congressional investigations and a civil rights lawsuit filed by the NAACP — and the EPA took over — in which the group accused the state of Mississippi of granting grants. funds from loans to Jackson only three times in the past 25 years. years, while funneling more money to predominantly white areas of Mississippi despite their less acute needs (green wire21st of October).

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