Lawsuit accuses officials of racial bias in water project

AP News
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Posted: Feb 19, 2016 6:40 PM

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A federal lawsuit accuses officials in a north Louisiana parish of discriminating against black residents for decades by allegedly failing to provide them with clean water and other services that their white neighbors get.

Two black Winnsboro residents sued the Franklin Parish Police Jury on Thursday, claiming its elected members have ignored their need for safer drinking water, paved roads and adequate sewer service.

The lawsuit says the state Office of Community Development awarded nearly $340,000 to the police jury in 2012 to provide water and waste services to low- and moderate-income residents. But the suit claims parish officials intentionally delayed construction work that was supposed to be funded by the award.

Steve Oxenhandler, the police jury's attorney, said the suit's allegations are false and frivolous. He denied parish officials have engaged in any racial bias.

"We will defend this lawsuit vigorously and seek attorneys' fees and sanctions against the attorney who filed it," Oxenhandler said.

Plaintiffs' attorney Carol Powell Lexing sees parallels between her clients' situation and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where state and local officials have been criticized for failing to prevent lead contamination in the city's water supply.

"These people are in need of clean water, and they're not getting it," said Powell Lexing.

The plaintiffs, sisters Ruby and Alice Hooker, live on the east end of a street called Ellis Lane where most of the roughly two dozen residents are black and rely on wells for their water. The lawsuit claims parish officials "performed all the tasks" necessary to connect the public water system to homes belonging to the predominantly white residents on the west end of Ellis Lane.

"However, plaintiffs and residents of the east end of Ellis Lane who are elderly, in poor health and disabled are required to dig and lay 20 to 25 miles of water pipe along the roadway covering a four road stretch in order to receive fresh water without any formal assistance or directions," the suit says.

Ruby Hooker, 60, said her water has a brownish tint to it and smells like sewage. She said she can't drink it or use it to cook or do her laundry because it makes food taste terrible and leaves dingy, yellowish stains on clothes.

"It makes me angry," said Hooker, a Winnsboro native who left town when she was 19 years old but moved back in 2013. "We're constantly asking for help."

Oxenhandler said the police jury doesn't provide water service to anyone in the parish; that responsibility lies with a local water service district. He said the state grant money only paid for the materials needed to connect residents to the water supply.

"They have to supply the labor. We can't do the work for private people," he said. "It's up to them to do that, regardless of race."

The suit claims residents on the east end of Ellis Lane have had to endure other inequities besides poor water.

"The residents have to travel to their home on a dirt road full of potholes while their west end counterparts travel to their homes on a black top road," the suit says. "Plaintiffs suffer flooding on their roads and at their homes because there is no adequate drainage."

The suit, filed in the Monroe division of the Western District of Louisiana, asks the court to rule that the police jury has violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also seeks an order requiring the police jury to provide water service and "adequate roads and maintenance services" to the Hookers and other residents on the east end of Ellis Lane.