SAINT JOSEPH – Within minutes of being sworn in Friday as mayor, Elvadus Fields was informed by state health officials that nearly 22 percent of the homes in this small northeast Louisiana town have unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water.

Fields unseated four-term incumbent Edward Brown by three votes out of 421 cast in an election that revolved around anger about the continuing water crisis.

“The truth is, this should have been fixed years ago,” Fields said of the drinking water that has run yellowish-brown from the tap for years, largely because of the 90-year-old system that has been poorly maintained.

On Friday, state health officials announced that not only does the water have high levels of manganese and iron, which cause the discoloration though are not dangerous, but 90 homes also have unsafe levels of lead. Even low levels of lead can result in lower IQs, hearing problems, anemia and other serious health problems.

“The message to the folks who live there is not to drink the water,” Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state health officer, said Friday. “They may have no level. We would still prefer they don’t drink the water because of the deterioration of the plant that treats the water and the infrastructure, the pipes, that deliver the water.”

Families, particularly those with children under the age of 6 or with pregnant women, should have their blood tested for lead exposure. Lead dissolved in water has no taste, smell and is not visible, so testing is the only sure way to know, he said.

“We’re urging them to get in touch with their primary care doctor. And if they don’t have one, we’ve provided them with a list of resources where they can get the testing done,” Guidry said.

Such testing is required by law but is often overlooked because lead is so infrequently found. The state will be aggressive in pushing physicians to conduct the tests, Guidry said.

State Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, said that may not be enough.

“These residents of St. Joseph have been continuously exposed to excessive concentrated levels of damaging substances and need physical, mental, and psychological testing in addition to sustainable water supplies,” Hunter said Friday. “What’s being done to the people of Louisiana is criminal and I urge the attorney general to intervene.”

Aging water pipes have delivered brownish tap water for years.

“A lot of people have gunk in their water heaters and toilets and such. I have it too,” said Pearly Fair, a longtime resident.

By Fair’s reckoning, the biggest winners in the town’s water crisis have been nearby washaterias. The system over the years has been so unstable that the water may start out clear in the washing machine, and then turn brown during the rinse cycle.

“All your whites come out brown. So, a lot of us drive to a laundromat in another town. I go to Winnsboro. Some folks go to Tallulah. Been doing that for years,” Fair said.

“I hate to take a shower in it. It leaves a residue, makes my skin itch,” said Lacoty James while picking up bottled drinking water for her family.

Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an emergency order Dec. 16 when two routine samples showed unsafe levels of lead and two more showed high levels of copper. He ordered the town to start drinking bottled water that was delivered from state reserves set aside for disasters.

Louisiana Department of Health employees arrived the week before Christmas and started testing the drinking water from every one of the 470 homes, businesses, and schools on the town’s system.

Federal law requires action if lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion in 10 percent of the samples. Guidry said the sampling found actionable levels of lead in 21.7 percent of the 414 customers whose tests have been completed.

Health workers are visiting all the homes with unsafe readings to answer questions and, where appropriate, conduct an environmental investigation to determine where precisely the lead originated. He said testing of the water supply showed lead levels too low to cause the readings health workers found at the 90 meters. The sources could come from paint or soil or corroding pipes, he said.

Edward Brown, the former mayor, was cleaning out his desk Thursday. Two trophy heads of deer – the area is renowned by hunters – lay on the floor next to bags of stuff ready to be carted to the car.

When he walked into the mayor’s office 16 years ago, the town’s troubled water system was at the top of the agenda.

“I had a lot of sleepless nights worrying that people would get sick,” even though he had been assured year after year that while unappetizing, the water was safe, Brown said.

Like many Louisiana towns — perhaps 300 of them, according to official estimates — St. Joseph can’t afford to maintain and improve its water system, he said.

More than half of the 528 families in town make less than $50,000 a year, according U.S. Census Bureau data.

In 2015, the town raised $115,883 charging fees for water, gas and other services;$117,328 from sales taxes; and $37,237 from ad valorem property taxes, according to the town’s financial records.

Brown went to Washington, D.C. in 2006 and got help from then U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. But the money Landrieu had found went away when Congress ended the practice of earmarks.

He then headed to Baton Rouge and persuaded then Gov. Bobby Jindal to visit in 2013 and have a glass of water.

Jindal promised $6 million. The town would have to put up a match of about $2 million, which is about what the town could raise if it sold every piece of property and equipment. Jindal waived the match.

But the money could not be used. The town’s finances were so shaky, it could not get the clear audit necessary to release the funds.

Then in March, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera released a report finding that Brown’s hiring of a cousin to do maintenance work may have violated state law.

On June 6, an independent auditor issued a report that allowed the town to access the $8 million to replace pipes and upgrade the water filtration facility. Sixth Judicial District Judge John D. Crigler, of St. Joseph, then appointed David Greer, a former assistant legislative auditor from Watson, to oversee the finances.

Since then, the water tower has been refurbished. The replacement of all the town’s distribution pipes, which pumps the water to the customers, will begin in a couple weeks. The facility that treats the water will be upgraded. The goal is to have the new system going by June.

In the meantime, each resident is receiving three liter bottles of water each day. The water is distributed from an empty lot that once was a grocery store, where residents sign a sheet to collect their daily ration.

Pastor Donald Scott, one of the volunteers from the town’s churches handling the task, said he has suspended baptisms at his Oneonta Baptist Church until he can work out a source to provide clean water. Celebrants’ heads are plunged fully underwater by the minister as part of the ceremony.

“They say don’t drink it. I just don’t feel comfortable immersing people in that water," Scott said. "I’m pretty sure God understands.” 

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.