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State Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry.

Advocate staff file photo by SCOTT THRELKELD

Health officials are gathering samples from every one of the 500 homes in St. Joseph to determine how widespread the lead problem is in the northeast Louisiana town’s drinking water, the state’s doctor said Thursday.

Finding unsafe levels of lead in two samples prompted Gov. John Bel Edwards last week to declare a health emergency and order bottled water delivered for the 1,100 residents until further notice.

Roughly 57,200 liter bottles of drinking water have been delivered so far. But that’s just the start. In order to brush their teeth and cook, the Tensas Parish town’s residents each month are going to need about as much water as would take to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Aging water pipes have delivered brownish tap water for months. Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state health officer, said much of the problem is that St. Joseph’s 90-year-old system has been poorly maintained, largely because the town has too few customers to pay for the necessary upkeep of pumps, pipes and filters.

In that regard, St. Joseph isn’t much different than other towns. About a third of the state’s 1,300 water systems report that their drinking water is discolored, Guidry said. It’s a problem that eventually will cost more than $1 billion to fix.

High levels of iron and manganese color the water but don’t make it unsafe, he said. Still, Guidry has fretted that St. Joseph's leaky system and deteriorating pipes could result in higher levels of dangerous metals. His office stepped up testing over the past year and last week found the two lead samples – at a home and at the Town Hall – along finding copper in samples taken from two homes.

Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in lower IQs, hearing problems and anemia.

The lead could be coming from the pipes in the old houses of this antebellum Mississippi River town, Guidry said. Or, more ominously,could be the result of corrosion in infrastructure that’s nearly a century old. Either way he asked for gubernatorial action until his office could figure out the source.

The Louisiana Department of Health started handing out bottles to gather water samples on Wednesday. As of Thursday morning 143 bottles have been returned.

For the tests to be accurate, the water must be drawn from a kitchen or bathroom faucet that hasn’t been used for at least six hours. Water needs to stand in the pipe that long, he said.

It’ll take two to four weeks for the analysis to be completed. “I suspect there is going to be more lead hits,” Guidry said.

In the meantime, bottled water taken from supplies kept for disasters is being trucked to St. Joseph and distributed at the Town Hall – three liters a day per person. The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management hopes to have a system in place by early January to deliver water in larger quantities, Mike Steele, the agency’s spokesman, said Thursday.

State Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, is hoping plans include make-shift areas, like those used after floods and hurricanes, where residents can take showers and wash clothes. Then, he wants the state to conduct long-term testing to see if the residents carry any ill effects from the drinking water.

He wants the response to St. Joseph to be precedent-setting, as Hunter sees similar conditions in the systems of dozens of small towns that also draw their water from the Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer.

“We’re working with the mayors, alderpersons and police jurors to create a plan we can use for the next time this happens,” Hunter said. “Notice that I say when, not if.”

The problem in St. Joseph, in simple terms, is that the old system leaks and the infrastructure is unreliable. The amount pumped from the underground aquifer was increased dramatically to keep pressure high enough to move the water through the processing system to the tower to the homes. The question becomes whether the amount of water flushing through the system is causing corrosion.

State and federal governments have $8 million in grants for upgrading the town’s water infrastructure, said David Greer, the Watson certified public accountant appointed by a state district court as St. Joseph’s fiscal administrator. But, the money was delayed because the town government’s finances didn’t comply with audits, a requirement for making the money accessible. The audit was finished in June 2016 and those funds became available.

Greer can’t say if $8 million is enough to do all the upgrades necessary. “Well, that’s the funding that’s available. I am hoping and keeping my fingers crossed that we can do everything we need to do,” he said.

Bryant Hammett, a Ferriday engineer who has handled water projects for other towns, is the manager for construction in St. Joseph. A new water tower has been erected. Repairs still have to be made to treatment plant.

But the biggest task is replacing all the distribution pipes. “We’re going to try to fast track to get this work started on the water lines as soon as we possibly can,” Hammett said.

The plan is to dig trenches next to the existing pipes and install new ones. He’s negotiating with Womack Construction, of Catahoula Parish, and Greenbriar DSLP, based in Brookhaven, Miss. Both contractors are experienced in this kind of work, Hammett said, adding that he hopes to have a contract in place by next Thursday.

“We’re not shutting off the service,” Hammett said. “But we will abandon the existing lines once the new lines are put in place.”

Usually this kind of work takes a couple years. The state had been talking about speeding the deadline to 18 months – that is, until the health emergency declaration. Edwards told townspeople earlier this week that he wanted construction completed in nine months.

“I was a little hesitant at first, but now I think it’s possible,” Hammett said. “We’re going there as fast as we can.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.