Fighting for health and safety, groups ask court for role in addressing decades-long crisis
September 26, 2023, Jackson, MS – Following on the heels of a major legal victory for residents’ efforts against HB 1020, a group of Jackson, Mississippi, based grassroots organizations are once again seeking relief from the courts with a motion filed late yesterday to intervene in a lawsuit brought by the federal government against the City of Jackson for its failure to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). With residents currently shut out of closed-door settlement negotiations about the future of their water system, Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign (MS-PPC) and the People’s Advocacy Institute (PAI) are seeking an official role for community involvement in the co-design of just, equitable solutions to the decades-long water crisis. They seek public accountability and increased information-sharing related to water quality and the management of an unprecedented amount of federal funding to fix the public water system.
After the Department of Justice filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in November 2022, the parties came to an interim agreement that called for a third-party manager (ITPM) to oversee the response to the crisis. But MS-PPC and PAI, and the residents they represent, say the appointee, Ted Henifin, and the EPA have not adequately engaged Jackson residents and community leaders in the process, have failed to keep them informed about the safety and quality of their water and the status of repairs to the water system, and have executed long-term contracts without proper transparency or oversight.
“Water is sacred, water is life,” said Danyelle Holmes of the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, one of the organizations seeking intervenor status in the lawsuit. “Water shouldn't be a silent killer. Yet, this is the reality for Jackson residents. It's criminal to allow residents to consume unsafe and unclean drinking water. We will not sit idly by and allow Jackson's harmful water quality to silently kill us.”
In August 2022, flooding shut down Jackson’s main water treatment plant, leaving thousands without safe drinking water. For the 160,000 residents of this predominantly Black city, this was only one episode in a multigenerational environmental injustice that has included lead contamination, hundreds of boil water notices, and three complete shutoffs that left some residents without water for up to three weeks or more. A widespread lack of trust in the system led most residents to stop drinking the water years ago.
Intervention in the case is only one part of the group's efforts to give residents a say in the response to the crisis. Last month, they filed an emergency petition with the EPA asking for emergency interim water relief, among other remedies, and, the month before, they submitted a community statement to the EPA. Both the motion and the petition were submitted on their behalf by attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Forward Justice, and the ACLU of Mississippi. Attorneys from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) joined the groups in representing PPC-MS and PAI on the emergency petition and community statement.
Both the City of Jackson and the EPA have agreed not to oppose the organizations’ motion to intervene in the case.
“Mississippi Poor People's Campaign and People's Advocacy Institute are seeking to join this case under the federal rules of intervention and under a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act that gives residents and community groups like them the right to intervene and partner with the government in enforcing the Act's requirements,” said Mikaila Hernández, Bertha Justice Fellow and attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Our clients are doing exactly what they have the right to do, and what they have been invited to do by Congress, to protect their community from the hazards of racialized environmental injustice. We appreciate the decision by the City of Jackson and the EPA to not oppose this action.”
PPC-MS and PAI are proposing a range of changes to foster community involvement and ensure all entities involved in resolving the crisis, including the parties in the Safe Drinking Water Act case, are accountable to the groups and residents. They seek a meaningful official role for community members in negotiations; more frequent provision of scientifically-backed data to support the third-party manager, EPA, and other government entities’ broad statements about water quality and safety; and alternative water sources for residents.
“Jackson is one of more than 100 cities that have hiring and contracting policies that prioritize residents,” says Brooke Floyd, lead organizer for the Jackson People’s Assemblies. “It is unconscionable that the federal government finally grants us hundreds of millions of dollars and there’s no requirement that these funds create employment for our residents. This is one of the many reasons why we need a seat at the table.”
Caused by decades of discriminatory neglect and disinvestment by its state government, the Jackson crisis is similar to crises facing other majority-Black and Latinx communities around the country, as shown in a September 12, 2023, shadow report submission to the United Nations Human Rights Committee by Jackson community members, academics, and organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights. Collapsing water and wastewater systems are threatening the health of residents in Alexandria, Louisiana; Baltimore, Maryland; Laredo, Texas; and Lowndes County, Alabama.
Read today’s motion here.
For more information, visit the groups’ websites:
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.