Louisiana taxpayers ponied up nearly $10 million to replace a system that was delivering lead-laden drinking water in the antebellum town of St. Joseph.
The water system’s responsibility ends at delivering sparkling clean drinking water to a customer’s house. It’s up to the homeowners to ensure that the water remains clean from meter to tap.
But that’s proving problematic for many of the elderly and low-income residents living in the town’s 500 structures, most of which were built before the 1970s when lead pipes and lead solder were commonly used.
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When state tests found dangerous levels of lead, which causes brain damage, and copper in 2016, Gov. John Bel Edwards shutdown the 90-year-old water system serving the small northeast Louisiana town. It took a little over a year and millions of dollars to replace the distribution pipes, pumps and filters. During that time the thousand residents drank almost as much bottled water as the people displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The new system opened in March, but many of St. Joseph’s homeowners are still getting dangerous water inside their homes because of their structure’s corroded pipes. The state doesn’t pay for those repairs and many homeowners can’t pay for it themselves, said Janie Jones, president of the Council on Policy & Social Impact, based in Washington, D.C.
St. Joseph has an unemployment rate hovering around 12 percent – roughly three times higher than the state average – and median family income of about $29,000 – more than 40 percent below the state’s.
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“We suspect that about 10 percent can’t afford it on their own, and will need help of some kind,” Jones said. “St. Joseph is in the recovery phase. We need get in and help get the clean water into the homes.”
She was crisis manager in Ferguson, Mo., coordinating meetings between the U.S. Justice Department, city hall and the family of the young man killed by police. The shooting launched weeks of riots and protests. She also worked in Flint, Michigan, where the discovery of lead in the drinking water began a national dialogue on problems with aging infrastructure.
Jones became involved with St. Joseph because her mother lives in nearby Waterproof. She knew of the town’s decades-old problems with a water system frequently stressed by leaks and lack of adequate pressure.
Generally, public dollars can’t be used to help private homeowners purchase new appliances and replace their corroded pipes.
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Of the state’s 1,300 drinking water systems, about half operate infrastructure that is more than a half century old. Jones said St. Joseph’s should offer a chance to develop procedures that can be used in the future.
The first step is to count how many homes, schools and businesses still have dangerous water and how many can afford to make the necessary repairs.
The St. Joseph Disaster Relief & Research Task Force, of which Jones is a part, is systemically taking water samples from bathrooms and kitchens to send to Virginia Tech for analysis. The Virginia Tech team is headed by Marc Edwards, the environmental engineer who first identified lead in the water systems in Flint.
The group has been holding town hall meetings in St. Joseph, asking home and business owners to detail on a three-page form the age of the structure and its plumbing, the types of damages noticed, any past repairs, insurance available and ability to pay.
U.S. Army Lt. General (Ret.) Russel Honoré, another member of relief task force, says one indicator is the 45 requests for new hot water heaters to replace those that were damaged from the corrosive water. After a Rotary Club speech in Baton Rouge last week, a member of the audience volunteered to pay the roughly $400 for a new water heater.
“That leaves me with 44 more to find,” Honoré said.
He’s relying on donations from businesses, the religious community, and individuals. The bigger issue is getting the water heaters installed in a town without plumbers. He’s talking with unions in hopes finding volunteer plumbers.
At one point the group looked at seeking a declaration that would open the government grants and loans used to help homeowners recover from natural disasters, he said. But St. Joseph and the other troubled water systems are manmade disasters caused by a failure of local officials to follow regulations and of state officials to enforce those regulations.
“It’s a manmade disaster, no question, but that doesn’t fall under the guidelines that releases aid for hurricanes and floods,” Honoré said. “Without question, we are going to need legislation, regular annual audits, and regular testing.”