The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether a five-state government association that works on issues related to the Mississippi headwaters has violated civil rights law.
In July, the federal agency’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office accepted a complaint against the Upper Mississippi Basin Association, which represents the governors of Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The complaint, filed by American rivers, alleges the basin association discriminates against communities of color by preventing them from participating in the development of programs, projects and policies related to flooding along the Mississippi River.
“As an association of these governors, they have a lot of power to effect policy changes at the state and federal levels,” said Olivia Dorothy, director of river restoration at American Rivers.
Kirsten Wallace, executive director of the association, said in a statement that the organization denies the allegations and believes the complaint is unfounded.
The complaint alleges a pattern of behavior of the association. It focuses on its community outreach efforts in its Keys of the River Report, which aims to assess flood risk, sediment management, long-term drought and other concerns in communities along the upper Mississippi.
The study, which began during massive flooding in 2019, also offers immediate and long-term strategies to manage the Mississippi River more effectively. These strategies were shaped and influenced by feedback from local sessions where the association invited community members to share their concerns about the river.
Dorothy said there were few people of color at public meetings.
“We brought these concerns to the UMRBA, dating back to the spring of 2019 even before announcing and finalizing their public engagement schedule,” Dorothy said. “We stressed that they needed to raise awareness among some of these communities that had never been engaged before.”
Communities of color along the Mississippi River often face flood damage and recovery challenges that flood managers routinely overlook, she said.
“They need help with harmful flooding, with home renovations to prevent flood damage in the future,” Dorothy said. “We tend in the flood management community to ignore the flooding that continues to occur behind dikes where we supposedly have this flood control infrastructure.”
This kind of situation affects residents of East St. Louis and especially those of Cahokia Heights, said Norma Patterson, pastor at the Good Shepherd Faith United Church of Christ in East St. Louis. She experienced numerous floods as she lived in her first house in town from 1965 to 1998.
“There has been so much flooding in this city that at least three times in the 33 years that I have lived in this house, FEMA has had to pay me because of the flooding,” she said. .
East St. Louis has not seen such severe flooding since 1993, but the damage persists, Patterson said.
“I’ve never heard of this organization and I work closely with the city, at least I have in the past,” Patterson said. “I wonder who did they talk to? Someone here ?
Local environmental organizers noticed that the basin association avoided hosting sessions in predominantly Black River communities like St. Louis or Cairo, Ill., Said Maisah Khan, Mississippi policy director. River Network, an advocacy organization.
Khan acknowledges that it is not possible to organize a meeting in all areas along the river, but said the choices of Hannibal, Cape Girardeau and Godfrey, Illinois, were striking.
“The cities that were chosen for the listening sessions are predominantly white,” Khan said. “If you intentionally choose places where there aren’t as many people of color, you also increase the barriers to communities of color.”
She said she was the only non-white person at Hannibal’s session.
“What is missing when we don’t intentionally engage with communities of color are the very real impacts of flooding, climate change, housing issues,” Khan said.
This includes the lasting effects of mold, which can come from repetitive flooding or basement backups, she said.
“Not a single person at Hannibal’s public meeting raised an issue like this,” Khan said.
The main objective of the civil rights complaint is both to force changes to the Keys to the River report, but also to strengthen the association’s future work by engaging with different communities and perspectives, said Dorothy.
Eric Schmid covers Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the Journalism Fellowship Program: Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth project.