Despite some parallels with Flint, Mich., the brown water flowing from the taps in the northeast Louisiana town of St. Joseph is safe, a state health officer said Wednesday.
“Their complaints certainly have risen because of Flint, but it’s not a lead issue; it’s an iron issue, which is not a health issue. But it’s obviously not the water people want to see coming out of their faucets,” Jimmy Guidry, state health officer, told The Advocate in an interview.
Residents of Flint, a financially troubled suburb of Detroit, started complaining of smelly and discolored water shortly after the city changed its water supply to cut costs in April 2014. A General Motors factory complained that the water was corroding its engine parts.
Emails showed that state and federal authorities were aware the water was laced with high levels of lead, but that didn’t become public until late last year. Children in Flint were found with excessive lead in their systems, exposing them to damaged nervous systems that could lower intelligence and cause behavioral problems.
Michigan declared a state of emergency in January.
Residents of St. Joseph, a Mississippi River town of about 1,200 residents, petitioned President Barack Obama for help dealing with their yellow and brown tap water. The White House asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take a look, and the EPA called the state.
Gov. John Bel Edwards earlier this week ordered the state to start working with EPA, St. Joseph and Tensas Parish officials to resolve the issue.
Guidry said St. Joseph water has been tested over the years, and inspectors have found no lead contamination.
“We normally test in the summer because lead shows up more when it’s warm,” Guidry said, adding that the new testing is scheduled for this summer.
Lead amounts could have changed since the last test in 2013, but Guidry said testing for the toxin during the winter could lead to misleadingly low results.
Guidry said the problem is with St. Joseph’s 90-year-old system, which loses about half the water because of leaks. The water has iron when pumped from underground.
The state Department of Health and Hospitals noted in a report Tuesday that several maintenance deficiencies were found during its December inspection, including a deficient filtration system and rusty tanks.
The water then flows through the aging system to homes and businesses. Between May 2012 and January 2016, St. Joseph issued 20 notices advising customers to boil their water before use as a precaution.
Repairing the system would cost about $8 million.
“This is a problem that is common to a lot of small communities around Louisiana. They’re not able to raise the funds to maintain the system and meet higher standards,” Guidry said.
The national media has taken notice of the problems in St. Joseph, which state Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, attributes to the situation in Flint. He welcomes the publicity, saying it is helping his efforts to secure the funding necessary for upgrading the water system in a town — like many in northeast Louisiana — that simply can’t afford the repairs.
“In these very poor and rural areas, it’s hard to keep the streets up, keep up the water systems and sewers because they don’t have a lot of tax base,” Thompson said. Forty percent of St. Joseph’s population lives below the poverty line.
Thompson shepherded legislation last year to get about $6 million in state construction money for the project. But only $1.2 million of those dollars are available. And even that amount cannot be released because St. Joseph has not submitted an audit of its public spending, as required by law.
St. Joseph has now hired accountants to perform the audit, but its completion is at least 45 days away.
In the meantime, negotiations are underway to allow Tensas Parish, which is up-to-date with its audits and can legally accept the money, to take over the project.
St. Joseph Mayor Edward Brown did not return calls Tuesday and Wednesday seeking comment.
Guidry said that while the water is safe, he wouldn’t drink it because of the color.
“It doesn’t look like clean water. I would probably buy water if I had to drink that out of the glass,” he said.
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