Lauren Zanolli

Water woes: Tap runs brown in Louisiana’s impoverished northeast

With infrastructure funds going unspent, residents have lack of drinking supplies and iron sediment flowing from pipes

ST. JOSEPH, Louisiana – “I’m scared to take a bath,” said Ethel Strum, who lives in St. Joseph, a community of barely 1,000 people in northeast Louisiana.

She turned on the tap in the bathroom sink of her tidy one-story home and the water flowed clear for a second before fading to a milky brown. In her kitchen, a few cases of bottled water, which she uses for everything from brushing her teeth to cooking, are stacked on the table.

“I drive to Newellton to shower. It’s a 20-minute drive but I can do it in 12,” she laughed.

But talking about the town’s water issues makes her visibly upset. Among the many problems are frequent outages, water thick with iron sediment from the aging pipes, and poorly communicated boil-water advisories. “Water should be free until it’s fixed,” she said.

Strum can’t even wash her car with town water because it leaves a rust coating. Despite minimal use, she says she has received high bills and has to buy 20 cases of bottled water every month.

While state officials and the EPA have deemed the water safe to drink, virtually no one risks it. Most here do not even use tap water to cook or brush teeth, and many, especially children, bathe with bottled water. Lots of residents spend several hundred a month on store-bought water.

To add to the mounting frustration, $6 million of state funds allocated to St. Joseph for water line repairs in 2013 are still being withheld because the town’s mayor, Edward Brown, has failed several times to turn in a mandatory financial audit on time. New Governor John Bel Edwards said this week his office was working with the town of St. Joseph and the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) to fast track the allocation of at least some of that money to start system repair work. Mayor Brown said he expects to file the overdue audit by the end of February.

“What we’ve experienced here is policy failures that have allowed these communities to fall through the cracks,” said St. Joseph resident Garrett Boyte, drawing a comparison to the disaster in Flint, Michigan.

Boyte, along with colleagues in the Servant Leadership Corps of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, have sought to attract public attention on the issue through a recent social media push and an online petition to the Obama administration for federal assistance to St. Joseph. The effort has just over one-tenth of the 100,000 signatures it needs by Feb. 19 to reach its goal. The group notes, however, that with no evidence of lead contamination, the situation in St. Joseph is considerably less dire than in Flint.

Nevertheless, the town’s water woes illustrate a more slow-moving and commonplace catastrophe: failing infrastructure in small, impoverished communities that cannot afford to replace their systems, leaving residents with limited resources to cope on their own. 

What we’ve experienced here is policy failures that have allowed these communities to fall through the cracks,

Garrett Boyte

resident, St. Joseph

Established in 1834, St. Joseph lies squarely in the so-called Black Belt, a term coined by Booker T. Washington at the turn of the century to refer to the swath of dark, fertile soil that spans much of the American south. It has evolved to describe the largely black, poor communities that have been in decline since the mechanization of farming drove out small farmers, with no industry to replace it.

The town is the seat of Tensas Parish — one of the state’s poorest, with 34 percent of residents living in poverty and a median household income of around $27,000 (compared to $45,000 statewide). The least populous parish in the state, over half of its population is African-American. Unemployment in St. Joseph is likely higher than the official parish average of 9 percent, and the town’s poverty is written in its shoddy roads and houses in dire need of repair.

St. Joseph’s decaying water distribution system, installed in the 1930’s, is the main cause of the town’s water problems. “Over time, these old cast iron pipes that convey the water, they deteriorate and start to crack and leak,” said Davis Cole, a Baton Rouge-based civil engineer working on the redesign of St. Joseph’s water system. Leaks cost the town money; according to Mayor Brown, the system loses 50 percent of its water. And with resources already stretched thin, long-term repairs are out of reach. “This is typical of communities probably all over the U.S., especially poor communities,” Cole said.

The water’s rusty tint comes from naturally occurring iron and manganese sediment in the underground well that has built up in the water lines over the years. Every time the system has to be shut down for repairs, and then restarted, sediment is injected into the water flow. The problem started to become obvious over a decade ago, according to residents, but has gotten progressively worse. The water main reportedly broke four times last month alone.

While the state does monthly bacterial tests, the last detailed analysis of St. Joseph’s water was in 2013. It showed 32 times the EPA-recommended level of iron and 9 times that of manganese, according to an analysis by the local Sierra Club. But the EPA considers these contaminants to have merely “aesthetic” affects on the water. They are not regulated by the EPA or the state.

The state’s official approval of the water quality is of little comfort to most residents here. “We don’t know what’s in that water. They say it’s rust but there are so many ‘what if’s’,” said Marie, a grandmother and lifelong resident of St. Joseph who declined to give her real name because of the sensitivities around local politics.

“Who’s more important: the people or the paperwork?” asked Marie, implying that the audit issue was to blame. “Get the water straight and then work on that. It’s not the community’s fault, don’t make it hard on us.” 

The predominantly black and lower-income community of St. Joseph is not alone in rural Tensas Parish.
Lauren Zanolli

Iron contamination and aging infrastructure are not uncommon problems in the region. Dr. Jimmy Guidry, state health officer at the Department of Health and Hospitals, confirms that water discoloration caused by iron is a common complaint across the state. “There are probably several hundred water systems that deal with this,” Guidry said, out of approximately 1,360 local water systems in Louisiana.

“As a physician, I’m not going to tell you a lot of iron in your system is not going to affect your health,” Guidry said, when asked about the long-term effects of high iron exposure. “But that’s not something we regulate.” In light of renewed attention on the issue, he said the DHH would be looking again at an iron and manganese water rule that was legislated in 2014.

Of more pressing concern to Guidry was replacing St. Joseph’s decrepit water pipes, which pose a risk of bacterial contamination every time they break. Many Louisianans have been on high alert for water contamination after a brain-eating amoeba was found in four separate water systems last year.

Guidry also noted that frequent leaks in the St. Joseph water main present another threat — they have started to erode the nearby levee. The Mississippi River has swelled to record heights in some areas this winter following heavy rainfall.

“I understand their urgency to [fix the water color]. That will take time,” said Dr. Guidry. “The urgency to get their system back to where they are not at risk of contamination is most important to me.” He said that if they receive approval for two grants totaling around $600,000, the most-needed repairs on the town’s storage tank and water pipes could begin in a matter of weeks.

However, he noted that even with a full revamp of the system, which is planned once an additional $2 million in funding is secured, the brown water of St. Joseph might not disappear. “It may not get rid of it completely, because it doesn’t address the treatment part,” he said. While there are expensive chemicals and filters that can get rid of iron discoloration, “for a poor community, it’s not an easy option to address the iron,” he added.

‘As a physician, I’m not going to tell you a lot of iron in your system is not going to affect your health. But that’s not something we regulate.’

Dr. Jimmy Guidry

Louisiana state health officer

“If you were born after 2000 in this parish, you were always taught not to drink that water,” said Rosalie Bouobda, who moved to St. Joseph two years ago as a consultant for the Servant Leadership Corps of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana. That group has been meeting with state and local officials about the water issue for the past two years. “Children are taught not to deal with [the water]. It’s a reflex to them…They’ve never known clean water.”

Bouobda, along with Garrett Boyte, who started posting pictures of the muddy water on Twitter, has been instrumental in garnering attention beyond social media. But many lifelong residents of St. Joseph have been reluctant to speak out, either because of a fatalistic sense that nothing will change, or out of deference to local politics in a town where so many people are related to each other.

“They just accept it as a fact of life, their water is dirty and there is nothing they can do about it,” Boyte says of people’s perceptions.

For St. Joseph, dirty water may be as much a fact of life as high unemployment and failing schools.

“It’s like nobody cares. That’s how people in this town feel,” Michael Thomas, Jr., a 25-year old father of two, said. His apartment in a small subsidized housing complex stands across from the overgrown ruins of a long-abandoned Tensas Rosenwald High School, one of many built in the early 20th century with funds from Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, to educate African-Americans in the South.

“We gotta boil the water just to wash the babies,” he said. “If I could afford it, I’d move.” He said he spends as much as $300 every month on bottled water.

Sitting nearby, Kristi McWilliams, 23, and John Jackson, 24, echoed Thomas’ frustration. “I think about moving all the time, but we don’t have the jobs or the money,” said McWilliams.

“There is more they could be doing,” said Jackson of state officials. “They could drop the water bill. Water should be cheaper in the stores.”

‘If you were born after 2000 in this parish, you were always taught not to drink that water … They’ve never known clean water.’

Rosalie Bouobda

consultant, Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana

Some residents, like Ann South, an elderly woman who recently suffered a stroke and a heart attack, were frustrated by the disparities with other communities. “Around the lake there is no water problem,” she said, referring to the more affluent, largely white area around Lake Bruin nearby. “Who in the world do we have to talk to about helping my people in St. Joseph?”

Others, like Ethel Strum, were more sharply critical of Mayor Brown’s role in the water crisis. “The Mayor – he’s doing nothing!” she said. Valerie and Chip Sloan, a white couple who own a large house by the levee, claims that Mayor Brown has kicked them out of multiple town hall meetings for asking questions about the water, and that he has ignored their Freedom of Information Act requests for data on town finances.

“There are residents who have spoken out and they are retaliated against, either by the community at large or someone from the city,” added Boyte.

For his part, Brown, the town’s first African-American mayor, says his hands are largely tied on the water issue. “The state of Louisiana is testing this water and is saying that it is safe. And for me to overrule, [the Department of] Health and Hospitals or EPA … I don’t have that expertise, and no one in this town does,” he told Al Jazeera.

He says that with a budget of around $1.5 million – including a $500,000 general fund and around $1 million in water and gas sales – he is left with around $50,000 a year. That would leave little cash for infrastructure upgrades.

As for the lapsed financial audits that have delayed water system funding, Brown says that after an audit firm pulled out mid-audit in 2013, the town was forced to file late. With various lawsuits looming over the town since then, he says he has struggled to find an audit firm that will take on his case.

Brown also points to tight oversight from legislative auditors closely monitoring the town, in light of its failure to comply with financial audit rules. He says state law requires him to cut off utility connections after two months of missed payments and that, in the past, he has been issued a citation by auditors for granting extensions to individuals. Now, he turns off about 10-15 utility connections per month, including houses where he knows there are children and elderly people.

“You tell me what the state cares about the people in this town,” said Brown. “Did they care about people in Flint? They care about them now.”

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