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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – Federal investigations into public spending on the failing water system in Mississippi’s majority black capital are a test of President Joe Biden’s commitment to racial equity, one of his congressional allies to hundreds of people at a town hall meeting hosted by the NAACP.

“President Biden has adopted a fundamental policy in his administration to talk about fairness. And it’s a matter of fairness and fair treatment for the citizens of Jackson,” Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson said Monday night at New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson — the same spacious sanctuary where Biden spoke during the campaign. of 2020.

The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday it is investigating whether Mississippi state agencies discriminated against Jackson by refusing to fund improvements to the city’s water supply system. of 150,000 inhabitants, where more than 80% of the inhabitants are black and about a quarter of the population lives in poverty. .

Thompson said the EPA’s civilian investigation is expected to last about four months. The federal agency could withhold state money if it uncovers wrongdoing — potentially millions of dollars. If state agencies don’t cooperate with the investigation, the EPA could refer the case to the Department of Justice.

The Thompson congressional district includes most of Jackson. He is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee — one of two congressional committees also investigating how Republican-run Mississippi spends federal money on water system improvements, and whether a part of the money will go to Jackson.

Biden spoke at the New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson during a worship service in March 2020 as he sought the Democratic nomination for president. Biden had just won a victory in the Democratic primary in South Carolina, where black voters gave him a crucial boost – and Thompson introduced the former New Hope vice president as the “Comeback Kid”.

“If I’m the Comeback Kid, there’s only one reason I came back — the African-American community across the country,” Biden told the majority-black congregation in Mississippi. He is also committed to watching over marginalized, isolated and oppressed people.

Speaking of Biden on Monday, Thompson said, “I will continue to make him a man of his word. He sat right here on the front bench and asked people to support him, and a lot of us did. And so now it’s about making sure that promises made are promises kept.

Jackson has struggled with water system problems for years and most of the city lost running water for several days in late August and early September after torrential rains exacerbated problems in the main water treatment facility. Republican Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves declared an emergency Aug. 29, and the state’s Health Department and Mississippi Emergency Management Agency have been overseeing operations and repairs at the facility ever since.

By the time Reeves issued the emergency order, residents of Jackson had already been ordered for a month to boil their water to kill possible contaminants. Volunteers and the National Guard had distributed millions of bottles of drinking water. Although the boil water advisory was lifted in mid-September, many residents remain skeptical about the safety of the water.

In a Sept. 27 federal complaint, the NAACP said Mississippi officials “almost ensured” a drinking water calamity by starving Jackson of badly needed funds to upgrade its infrastructure. The organization asked the EPA to investigate the state’s alleged pattern of directing money to majority white communities that need it less.

NAACP National President Derrick Johnson, who lives in Jackson with his family, said Monday the state must direct federal funds toward “clean, safe drinking water for every citizen in this city.” He also said the system should remain under city control and not be outsourced to private contractors or a regional board.

“When you look at how the water systems are funded in this state, it’s coming from federal funds,” Johnson said. “And in the 25 years that the state of Mississippi has received federal water funds, the city of Jackson has only received funds three of those 25 years. It’s an inequity that this administration has said that she was going to fix.

The AP reported in September that years before Reeves became governor, he touted his own record of fiscal conservatism, citing his opposition to spending state money on water and sewer infrastructure. in ruins of Jackson. The EPA is not investigating Reeves.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.


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