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Mississippi River Association Under Civil Rights Investigation

 The Mississippi River flooding its usual banks of East St. Louis near Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park on June 7, 2019.
File Photo / Mary Delach Leonard
St. Louis Public Radio
The Mississippi River flooding its usual banks of East St. Louis near Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park on June 7, 2019.

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether a five-state governmental association that works on issues related to the Upper Mississippi River violated the Civil Rights Act.

In July, the federal agency’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office accepted a complaint against the Upper Mississippi River 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 level,” said Olivia Dorothy, a river restoration director at American Rivers.

Kirsten Wallace, the association’s executive director, said in a statement the organization denies the allegations and believes the complaint lacks merit.

The complaint alleges a pattern of behavior by the association. It focuses on its community outreach efforts in its Keys to the River Report, which is meant to evaluate 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 proposes immediate and long-term strategies to manage the Mississippi River more effectively. Those strategies were shaped and influenced by feedback in local sessions where the association invited community members to share their concerns about the river.

Dorothy said there were few people of color at the public meetings.

“We raised these concerns with UMRBA, going back to the spring of 2019 before they even announced and finalized their public engagement schedule,” Dorothy said. “We pointed out they needed to do outreach to some of these communities that haven’t been engaged before.”

Communities of color along the Mississippi River often face the brunt of flooding damage and recovery challenges that flood managers regularly overlook, she said.

“They need help with nuisance flooding, with home renovations to prevent flood damages in the future,” Dorothy said. “We have a tendency in the flood management community to ignore the flooding that continues to happen behind levees where we supposedly have this flood control infrastructure.”

This kind of situation affects residents in East St. Louis and more acutely those in Cahokia Heights, said Norma Patterson, a pastor at Good Shepherd Faith United Church of Christ in East St. Louis. She experienced numerous floods while living in her first house in the city from 1965 to 1998.

“There were so many floods in this city to the point where at least three times during that 33 years I lived in that house, FEMA has had to pay me because of the flooding,” she said.

East St. Louis hasn’t had floods as bad since 1993, but the damage remains, Patterson said.

“I never heard of this organization, and I work closely with the city, at least I have in the past,” Patterson said. “I’m wondering who did they talk to? Anybody down here?”

Environmental organizers locally noticed the basin association avoided hosting sessions in majority-Black river communities, like St. Louis or Cairo, Illinois, said Maisah Khan, policy director at the Mississippi River Network, an advocacy organization.

Khan recognizes it’s not possible to host a meeting in every area 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 chose places where there aren’t as many people of color, you’re also increasing the barriers to communities of color.”

She said she was the only nonwhite person at the Hannibal session.

“What is missed when we are not engaging intentionally with communities of color are the very real impacts of flooding, of climate change, of housing issues,” Khan said.

That includes the lasting effects from mold, which can come from repetitive flooding or basement backups, she said.

“Not a single person in the Hannibal public meeting raised any issue like that,” Khan said.

The main goal of the civil rights complaint is to both 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, Dorothy said.

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East area in Illinois for St. Louis Public Radio. He joins the news team as its first Report for America corps member and is tasked with expanding KWMU's coverage east from the Mississippi. Before joining St. Louis Public Radio, Eric held competitive internships at Fox News Channel, NPR-affiliate WSHU Public Radio and AccuWeather. As a news fellow at WSHU's Long Island Bureau, he covered governments and environmental issues as well as other general assignments. Eric grew up in Northern Colorado but attended Stony Brook University, in New York where he earned his degree in journalism in 2018. He is an expert skier, avid reader and lifelong musician-he plays saxophone and clarinet.