Holding the Government Accountable

How Lax EPA Oversight Enabled Jackson’s Water Crisis

What happened in Mississippi was a “worst-case scenario” according to EPA officials, but records show years of missed opportunities to avert disaster.

Collage of Jackson, Mississippi residents standing in a pool of toxic water and a map of Mississippi in the background.

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

On July 29, 2022, some 160,000 residents of the Jackson, Mississippi, area began a harrowing 48-day ordeal. A boil water notice warned that tap water from the city’s system might contain organisms that cause nausea, cramps, diarrhea, and headaches. And for several weeks during that period, sweeping infrastructure failures in part due to flooding, aging pipes and equipment, and inadequate maintenance left thousands of people without water to drink, bathe in, cook with, or flush their toilet.

Meanwhile, the federal dollars flowing to Jackson through its state government were scarcely a trickle compared to what was needed. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disburses funds to Mississippi and every other state and Puerto Rico to maintain, fix, and upgrade water systems to ensure that the public has safe drinking water.

Only a day before the boil water notice, the EPA had issued an underwhelming report to the Mississippi state government assessing its distribution of federal funding for water infrastructure during the prior fiscal year. On the precipice of one of the nation’s most notorious water crises in the last decade, EPA ended its assessment with the conclusion, “no findings.” Yet experts, including EPA officials who spoke with the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), have widely identified chronic underinvestment as a root cause behind the city’s failing water system. 

The report wasn’t an outlier. Documents obtained by POGO reveal a troubling trend that had dire consequences for the people of Jackson. The EPA had flagged problems with the city’s water system in the years leading up to the city’s devastating water crisis in 2022, yet its oversight of funding that could have mitigated the disaster repeatedly fell short: Years of financial oversight reports show no warnings from the EPA to Mississippi regarding massive, unmet infrastructure needs in Jackson and failures by the state to adequately fund improvements with available federal money.

The EPA’s lax oversight of Mississippi in past years is a cautionary tale of the human consequences when officials don’t robustly oversee how and where federal funds go — and who isn’t getting enough support.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. “We’re fighting to save our lives,” said Danyelle Holmes, an organizer with the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign and other advocacy groups, who has lived in Jackson since 1991. 

She and other Jackson residents have dealt with myriad water quality problems since well before 2022: little to no water pressure, unreliable access to water, and water that’s at a heightened risk of being contaminated by lead and other toxins that are unsafe to drink or bathe in. 

Last week, EPA’s inspector general found the EPA regional office overseeing Mississippi “did not consider” a number of sources of drinking water funding available to Jackson when assessing how much support the city received from the state. The inspector general wrote that Mississippi directed 20% of federal drinking water loan dollars towards Jackson during fiscal years 2015 through 2022, “even as Jackson’s population represented 24 percent” of state-wide loan recipients. 

The inspector general also found that Jackson received less per-person in subsidies that make federal loans less onerous to repay. During that same seven-year period, “Jackson originally was awarded 82 percent less loan subsidy per capita when compared to all other disadvantaged communities” in Mississippi that received federal drinking water loans, the inspector general wrote

If Mississippi had offered loans with more favorable terms earlier, the watchdog wrote that might have meant Jackson could have accessed more funds to improve its water system sooner.

But it took a public health emergency to prompt a more robust federal response. It was only after a national outcry around water system failures in August and September 2022 that the federal government dedicated $600 million to fixing the city’s dilapidated water system. 

When asked if the EPA raised any concerns about the state’s financial assistance for Jackson’s water system prior to the 48-day ordeal, a Mississippi health department spokesperson emailed POGO that, “We are not aware of any concerns from the EPA during the timeframe in your question.” The health department spokesperson also said the EPA had not raised any concerns regarding the state’s methodology for disbursing federal funds.  

EPA could absolutely be using its authority to prod states to do better.

Crystal McElrath, Southern Poverty Law Center

However, an EPA official said in an email that an EPA regional office pushed Mississippi’s health department to “recognize its ability to expand the capacity of the SRF program to address needs throughout Mississippi” prior to Jackson’s 48-day ordeal in 2022 (SRF is a reference to the state-run, mostly federally financed drinking water state revolving fund program). 

Although it is not mentioned in the EPA’s reports, that EPA official also said that the agency successfully recommended that Mississippi fund Jackson’s request for $27.9 million in fiscal year 2021. But a trail of official records from EPA’s headquarters and the agency’s watchdog office show that there was more that EPA’s regional office could have done earlier, although how much more is subject to debate.

“Rubber Stamping”?

Collage of a hand stamping a document with the EPA seal.

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

As it happened, Jackson’s ordeal came just months after the EPA announced in a March 2022 memo that “one focus” of its oversight moving forward would be on how states prioritize projects to “support the goal of reaching disadvantaged communities and address the most serious risks to human health.” But EPA’s July 2022 oversight report on Mississippi did not explicitly address either of those points.

Johnnie Purify, Jr., a federal official who works in the EPA regional office that oversees Mississippi, told POGO that the agency’s oversight requirements have changed over the years but that there are still limits to the scope of its oversight reports. One such limit is that the EPA’s reports don’t actually assess whether federal dollars are flowing to communities with the greatest health needs, he said. EPA’s watchdog relatedly observed a decade ago that the EPA reviews documented by these reports sometimes involve a “limited consideration of public health benefits.”

The reports instead are primarily about state compliance with federal requirements such as completing all required paperwork on time, ensuring there are enough qualified personnel and the right systems for distributing money to water systems, and adhering to accounting standards. EPA also works with states to minimize documenting any problems in the reports. “It is a constructive tool to have a conversation with a state about how they manage their program,” Purify said. Regarding the EPA’s reports, “I don’t believe it’s a punitive thing, it’s a conversation piece.”

He said that EPA wants to resolve problems by working with state agencies rather than failing states with what could be seen as bad grades. Purify said there’s a natural aversion to findings, yet EPA has to thread a needle: Use oversight reviews to nudge states to make positive changes without driving them away. “States don’t like us to write findings,” he said, even though official EPA headquarters guidance says these reports should include “a discussion of the positive and problematic findings.”

The seeming paucity of critical oversight has left some close observers unimpressed. Abre’ Conner, the NAACP’s director of environmental and climate justice, told POGO that aspects of EPA oversight come across as “rubber stamping.” The EPA appears to approve state proposals for how they plan to spend federal drinking water funds “no matter what,” she said. “That's not helpful.”

While EPA can’t force states to change, stronger oversight by the agency could have prompted Mississippi to disperse more money to communities with the greatest needs. 

When we used water from our taps to brush our teeth, the water made my niece sick to her stomach.

Anonymous resident of Jackson, Mississippi

“EPA could absolutely be using its authority to prod states to do better,” said Crystal McElrath, a senior supervising attorney with the non-profit Southern Poverty Law Center. She told POGO that EPA could have done far more to push Mississippi toward making federal funding accessible to the city, which has been saddled with debt, without the limitations that “handcuffed Jackson,” a reference to state policies around repaying federal funds offered in the form of loans.

Purify told POGO that a community’s ability to pay back federal loans — and the barrier that a lack of ability poses — “is something we don’t pay enough attention to.” He said that was a problem relevant to Jackson. A spokesperson for the city of Jackson told POGO in an email that the city likely would have sought federal funding more often before 2022 had the state made the funding available in the form of grants, or by making loan repayment less burdensome. 

This April, the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council gave Mississippi poor marks for its state policies that the group said make “it more difficult for disadvantaged communities to access funds” for water infrastructure provided by the EPA – ranking it 34th out of all states in terms of equity.

“The Latest Water Crisis Did Not Happen Overnight”

Collage of an aerial view of Jackson, Mississippi, and the EPA logo on the horizon.

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

Jackson’s water challenges compound difficulties in a city where residents already struggle with the impacts of structural racism and economic hardship. A quarter of Jackson’s residents live below the poverty line — a higher rate than the state overall and more than twice the national rate — according to Census data. The median household income is lower than that of the rest of the state and the nation. Against that socioeconomic backdrop, residents have been driven to buy bottled water, which costs far more than tap water, adding to the burdens on a community facing widespread economic stress. 

“Every day, I wake up and pray that we will have water and that it will be clear,” said a longtime Jackson resident, whose name was redacted in a sworn statement filed with the EPA. The resident described having to bathe their husband in tea-colored water shortly before his death in August 2022, and said water issues have made life harder for the resident’s family.

“When we used water from our taps to brush our teeth, the water made my niece sick to her stomach,” the resident said. “I try to cook, make coffee, or brush my teeth with bottled water to be as safe as possible, even though I am on the public water supply. But sometimes I can barely afford to buy that water.” 

A deteriorating tax base due to decades of white flight, a failed effort at boosting city revenue by upgrading water billing systems, and other factors have made it harder for the city to pay for its water infrastructure — making access to federal funding more important. 

“What happened in Jackson, it really feels like one of those worst-case scenarios,” said Brian Smith, an EPA official, in an interview with POGO. He said while Jackson’s water crisis is “not something that’s totally unprecedented,” unlike Jackson, the most troubled water systems that EPA deals with tend to be much smaller.

“The issue that was the hardest to deal with, when I look back in hindsight, it was the financial challenges the city had in running the water system,” Smith said. “It’s easy to look from a hindsight perspective and say here’s where we could have made different actions,” he said about oversight in the lead-up to the crisis, but he and his colleague Purify pointed to other issues that had contributed to the crisis as well. 

It wasn’t a matter of whether these systems would fail, but when. The latest water crisis did not happen overnight, and in reflection, there is some blame for everyone.

Spokesperson for the city of Jackson

Jackson had struggled to pay overtime for qualified personnel to run its water system, contributing to staff turnover. However, federal dollars meant for drinking water infrastructure cannot be used to pay for such operating expenses, according to EPA officials who spoke with POGO. In 2023, EPA used an emergency authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act to provide that funding. Far more funds and flexibility to assist financially strapped communities like Jackson had become available in 2022 due to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act that Congress passed into law the year before.

“We are hopeful that recent developments elevate the importance of preventing similar crises in the future. It wasn’t a matter of whether these systems would fail, but when,” a spokesperson for the city of Jackson told POGO in an email. “The latest water crisis did not happen overnight, and in reflection, there is some blame for everyone. However, we are looking forward now.”

Gaps in EPA’s “Circle of Accountability”

Collage of a family standing in a pool of toxic water, staring at a circle with documents and the EPA logo.

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

Two components of the EPA’s oversight of drinking water are ensuring that water systems comply with rules meant to protect human health and safety and examining how states use federal dollars meant to keep water systems compliant with those rules.   

For years, the EPA has flagged problems with the quality of Jackson’s water, placing the city’s system on its list of top priorities in 2018 and finding in 2020 that the system itself posed an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to city residents. 

But EPA’s oversight fell short when it came to assessing how the state of Mississippi disbursed funds to Jackson for water infrastructure. EPA’s oversight is documented in its program evaluation reports, which the agency says are part of its “circle of accountability.” In sum, these reports, their findings, and the recommendations that flow from those findings are meant to inform government decision-making regarding federal drinking water funds. As the EPA has written, its program evaluation reports are among the “oversight activities [that] are then used to guide funding decisions and program management policies.”

The EPA might have mitigated the Jackson water crisis if they had provided recommendations for Mississippi on how the state could have directed more money to financially stressed communities with urgent water safety problems, communities like Jackson.

“There’s nothing stopping them [the EPA] from saying that some policies are better than others, and the states should consider adopting them,” said Becky Hammer, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They have been hesitant to say even that, which is frustrating.” 

There’s also a more fundamental problem: EPA does not proactively make its oversight reports public. “The EPA’s reviews of state programs are something of a black hole,” said Janet Pritchard, the non-profit Environmental Policy Innovation Center’s director of water infrastructure policy. “EPA has provided guidance to states on equity-oriented policy reforms, indicating they are engaging state administrators on equity concerns.”

“While some states have recently revised how they define ‘disadvantaged communities’ and other policies that govern the distribution of state revolving fund awards,” Pritchard said, “for states yet to take up these tasks, the nature, the extent or impact of EPA engagement remains unclear.”

(The Safe Drinking Water Act defines “disadvantaged community” as an area served by a public water system that meets affordability criteria established by the system’s state government. States use a wide variety of criteria to establish what are disadvantaged communities, including income level and population size. Mississippi compares the median household income of a water system’s service area to the state-wide median to determine if a community is disadvantaged.)

Purify told POGO that he has no concerns with making EPA oversight reports public, and said they would be helpful to external parties and the public at large.

Harmful water doesn’t hurt you overnight. It takes years before you will see the impact.

Danyelle Holmes, Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign

Hammer’s group has long urged EPA to provide greater oversight and make more recommendations for improvements, especially when there is “current or potential drinking water contamination,” which Jackson residents have grappled with for years.

Water quality issues have led some Jackson residents to ask pointed questions. “What are Mississippians really dying of?” asked Holmes, a resident who has experienced water safety issues firsthand. “We have ... to connect the dots as to what’s actually happening in our communities.” She described her mother’s death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS, and questioned whether incidences of rare diseases in Jackson are connected to the water quality. “Could it be the water that’s killing us, contaminating us, causing these rare diseases?” Holmes asked, emphasizing the ways the long-term health impacts of poor water quality have been overlooked by state and federal leaders. Some studies have found links between that disease and environmental factors, such as contaminated water.

Holmes also described how her grandchildren had eczema outbreaks when they lived in the city, but their skin cleared up when they moved to Houston, Texas. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine linked past lead contamination in the water in Jackson to a range of potential health issues, including skin irritation and rashes, heart problems, and infertility. It noted that lead exposure is particularly harmful to children, causing neurological problems and developmental delays. 

Nine doctors and public health experts told EPA in a sworn declaration in 2022 that Jackson’s water problems exacerbate existing health issues in the city. 

“Harmful water doesn’t hurt you overnight. It takes years before you will see the impact,” Holmes said.

The EPA has known about problems with Jackson’s water for years, and advocates say it could have done more, earlier to push Mississippi to pay for fixes to the city’s dilapidated water system.

“Unrealized Potential to Protect Public Health”

Collage of a sick man standing in toxic water, a sea of money, and a document with text: EPA Region 4.

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

EPA headquarters has long raised concerns about oversight conducted by the EPA’s Region 4, which encompasses the southeast region of the country, and about Mississippi in particular. When EPA headquarters staff took a close look at Region 4’s oversight in 2017, 2018, and 2019, they found that although it was “adequate” or effective overall, there was a major issue the regional office wasn’t flagging enough: EPA Region 4 states were distributing a lower percentage of federal funds than the national average. Specifically, “states in Region 4 have underutilized capacity to make drinking water infrastructure loans,” headquarters wrote in a 2017 memo.

The distribution for this and other headquarters memos includes only officials in EPA’s headquarters and in its Region 4 office. A Mississippi health department spokesperson did not say whether Region 4 shared the memos, or the concerns within them. A spokesperson for Jackson said the city was unaware of them.

The next year, EPA headquarters identified Mississippi and Florida, another state in Region 4, as being at “the level of most critical concern.” 

In a January 2020 memo, EPA headquarters flagged that proportionally Mississippi had more “cash on hand” than the other Region 4 states and nationally, indicating “considerable capacity for greater lending by the state and unrealized potential to protect public health.” Headquarters found that Mississippi’s funds dispersal had gotten worse over the prior two years. 

EPA headquarters has not documented any similar reviews of Region 4 since then, nor of any other regions since 2021, according to the agency’s response to POGO’s Freedom of Information Act request for these memos. 

Although Region 4’s reports said the state should increase the “pace” of disbursing federal funds, none of them mentioned Jackson’s unmet needs in the coming years or explained the stakes, even as EPA’s top leader was himself impacted by water system breakdowns. EPA Administrator Michael Regan was slated to visit schoolchildren and teachers at Jackson’s Wilkins Elementary School in November 2021, but in-person classes were canceled there and at nine other schools due to water system problems. 

Specifically citing Jackson, Regan wrote a letter to governors in December 2021 arguing that states and the EPA need to take advantage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, then-newly passed legislation that expanded the funds available for water projects.  

“Every state in America has disadvantaged communities – rural, urban, suburban – that have deeply rooted water challenges, whether it is too much, too little or poor-quality water,” Regan wrote. “These communities have never received their fair share of federal water infrastructure funding.”

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba (D) would reference Regan’s letter days later during a press conference: “We simply want to be sure that the city of Jackson gets its equitable share of those resources — its fair share.” City officials met with EPA leadership seeking funds soon after.

But just seven months later, EPA Region 4 produced the July 2022 report on Mississippi with “no findings.” 

“A Lost Opportunity”: Better Oversight Could Have Mitigated Disaster

Collage of $100 bills and volunteers with a crate of water bottles standing in toxic water.

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

Reports from EPA’s regional offices have been criticized multiple times by the agency’s official watchdog, stretching back to 2011 and as recently as last year. The inspector general’s office has found that these reports often do not ensure that federal dollars administered by states go to projects in communities with the greatest public health needs or to disadvantaged communities — which are often one and the same. 

EPA regional offices are supposed to use a checklist developed by EPA headquarters to ensure they address key issues during their oversight reviews.

Yet last year, an inspector general report revealed that a top EPA Region 4 official responsible for drinking water oversight was unaware of a key responsibility: That official said they did not need to analyze subsidies for disadvantaged communities. Subsidies include forgiving the principal of a federal loan in part or in whole — in essence, reducing what needs to be repaid — and funding in the form of a grant that does not need to be repaid. These subsidies are particularly important for communities like Jackson, since they may struggle to repay loans. 

An EPA headquarters official told inspector general staffers that this information should be included in Region 4’s reports.

“If the [EPA’s] regions aren’t reviewing all the critical information with the states, it’s a lost opportunity to ... improve how these funds are distributed,” Katherine Trimble, EPA’s assistant inspector general for audits, told POGO. 

EPA’s checklist for Mississippi evaluating the state’s actions in 2022 (the EPA completed the checklist last year), obtained by POGO through the Freedom of Information Act, leaves unanswered several key questions. These include whether the state’s definition of disadvantaged communities encompass “both rural and urban” communities and whether the state ensures disadvantaged communities receive funding in line with the state’s ranking system. 

An EPA official wrote to POGO that “due to EPA staffing shortages and time constraints notes were not transcribed into the checklist” but said that last year’s report reflects what EPA learned when it asked Mississippi these questions.

The Buck Stops Where?

Collage of a hand drowning in a sea of money and the Mississippi map in the background.

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

Even if reports by the EPA’s regional offices offered tougher critiques of state policy, they can only go so far, according to Crystal McElrath of the Southern Poverty Law Center. State government receptiveness to federal oversight is also a major factor, she said. 

In Mississippi, the state government has pushed back against criticism that it is partially responsible for Jackson’s water crisis. 

State government leaders have argued that the blame should be laid at the feet of the city, which only applied for federal loans three times since the EPA program began in the late 1990s: in 2016, 2019, and 2021. Governor Tate Reeves (R) has specifically touted a nearly $28 million federal loan approved for Jackson in fiscal year 2021 – this is the same funding for Jackson that EPA’s Region 4 said it recommended Mississippi approve. Reeves wrote that the award represented 93% of the funds approved for communities larger than 10,000 people that year. 

“There is no factual basis whatsoever to suggest that there has been an ‘underinvestment’ in the City,” Reeves wrote in October 2022, “or that it has received disproportionately less than any other area of the state.” 

But his account doesn’t factor in the city’s wariness of debt or the state’s less-than-generous approach to making federal funding more accessible. For instance, the state didn’t offer loan subsidies until 2010. While Reeves denied there has been underinvestment, his view is at odds with numerous experts and policymakers. 

Jackson’s former mayor, Harvey Johnson Jr. (D), wrote in 2022 that distributing federal funding in the form of loans, which generally have to be repaid, contributed to the city’s plight by placing the financial burden onto lower and moderate income citizens.

Others have echoed this point. “If you are already in a situation in a community where you don’t have the money to actually fix those problems, a loan is not really what you need at that moment,” the NAACP’s Abre’ Conner told Congress in 2022. “You need actual direct investments into the communities.”

Johnson wrote that the approach of using loans was a shift from when the federal government invested in public water systems through grants. That earlier approach largely ended in the 1980s, as detailed in an in-depth 2021 investigative series by the Mississippi Free Press.  

The policy shift has reverberated through the decades. 

“The low-income status of many members of our community increases the urgency with which we must address the water crisis,” wrote Fidelis Malembeka, Jackson’s chief financial officer, in a fall 2022 letter, “and at the same time makes it less affordable for our community to carry the cost burden of the debt that will need to be incurred to deliver the safe drinking water.” 

The letter, obtained by POGO through an open records request, was sent to the state seeking partial forgiveness of federal loan dollars and more lenient terms. (During a time of intense media and congressional scrutiny, the state granted many of the city’s requests.) 

Malembeka’s letter says that Mississippi was one of the only states in EPA’s Region 4 that did not use disadvantaged community criteria to offer lower interest loans. Such an observation is missing in EPA Region 4’s reports on Mississippi. 

The water crisis in Jackson, where 82% of residents are Black, prompted the NAACP to file a racial discrimination complaint with the EPA in September 2022. It alleged that Mississippi state agencies discriminated against Jackson by depriving it of federal funding for drinking water infrastructure, prompting a rare EPA probe. Numerous factors made federal “loans unrealistic for Jackson, and thus had an adverse impact on the city and its majority-Black population,” the NAACP wrote.  

The state pushed back — citing EPA Region 4’s July 2022 report. 

“EPA has routinely reviewed the state’s program,” says the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) in a January 2023 letter. “Moreover, an annual report as recent as July 28, 2022, shows the EPA did not determine that MSDH’s program or funding criteria was discriminatory as to the City of Jackson or to other African American population [sic].” [Emphasis in original]  

The letter failed to mention that those EPA reports don’t typically include those kinds of assessments.

If you are already in a situation in a community where you don’t have the money to actually fix those problems, a loan is not really what you need at that moment.

Abre’ Conner, NAACP

The EPA ended its civil rights probe earlier this month, finding the state did not discriminate against Jackson on the basis of race. However, the EPA probe did find support for the contention that the loan terms may be “uniquely disadvantageous for Jackson” not because of race but because of “other factors such as the size of City of Jackson’s systems.” An EPA letter documenting the probe’s conclusions recommended Mississippi “assess loan terms to ensure meaningful access to funding for communities in greatest need over time” including considering “alternative approaches” to the state-imposed limits on making loans more affordable, “which uniquely affect a large system such as Jackson’s.”

“It is undeniable that the impacts of the water crisis fell disproportionately on the majority Black community of Jackson,” the EPA letter said.

Jackson now has $600 million from the federal government dedicated to the water system that it does not need to repay. EPA’s Region 4 office will document its oversight of the lion’s share of the spending through program evaluation reports.  

While Jackson now has no shortage of funding, questions remain regarding how the state will assist other disadvantaged communities elsewhere, such as in the Mississippi Delta region, which has also struggled with chronic underinvestment.

“The Communities that Need It Most”

Collage of an aerial view of Jackson, Mississippi, a worried man, and a family.

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

From the late 1990s until 2021, Mississippi directed a lower percentage of federal drinking water funding toward disadvantaged communities than the national average despite having one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, according to EPA and Census data. 

The Harvard Law School’s Mississippi Delta Project found in an August 2022 report that federal water infrastructure funding “is unevenly distributed throughout Mississippi and is difficult to access for some of the communities that need it most.” The EPA oversight reports about Mississippi that POGO examined have generally failed to include the kind of robust analysis conducted by the Harvard Law Mississippi Delta Project.  

EPA’s most recent annual report still did little to assess how well Mississippi supports disadvantaged communities throughout the state.

However, Johnnie Purify, who works in the EPA regional office, told POGO that recently, for the first time to his knowledge, his regional office identified the top 100 communities — across the eight states that his office oversees, including Mississippi — that have water quality violations and have not received federal loan funds in the last five years. When developing this list, an agency spokesperson told POGO in an email, EPA also considered data sources identifying places that are low income, overburdened and underserved, and that have difficulty accessing government assistance. 

Recent records obtained by POGO show EPA stepping up its oversight, including pressing Mississippi last spring for long overdue information on how the state is spending grant funding for disadvantaged communities. In February 2023, an EPA official asked Mississippi’s health department to publicly provide more information on their outreach to underserved communities to make them aware of federal drinking water funding. 

And last summer, while assessing the state’s application for grant funds, an EPA Region 4 attorney asked Mississippi’s health department whether it maintains “racial/ethnic, national origin, age, sex, and disability data.” (The state agency told EPA it uses Census data.) 

In Jackson itself, EPA has played a major role in improving the situation for residents since 2022, said Holmes. She expressed tempered optimism for future federal oversight in Jackson, while identifying some remaining concerns in transparency and on-the-ground leadership. “They have stepped up and put protocols in place to ensure that the resources are going where they need to go,” Holmes told POGO.

At this point, Holmes said, she’s more concerned about EPA oversight state-wide than in Jackson. EPA’s most recent annual report still did little to assess how well Mississippi supports disadvantaged communities throughout the state. 

She is still wary of the water, though. In Jackson, boil water notices continue to be issued periodically, sometimes city-wide.

“For us, it’s a lifetime boil water notice,” said Holmes. “We tell communities there’s never a time that the water is safe here in the city or in the state of Mississippi.”

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