In the tiny town of St. Joseph, La., a local preacher has temporarily suspended baptisms, figuring that if officials don’t want people drinking the tainted water, he ought not to be plunging them into it, either.
“I just don’t feel comfortable immersing people in that water,” Pastor Donald Scott told the Advocate, a Baton Rouge newspaper, recently. “I’m pretty sure God understands.”
For years, the mostly poor, mostly black, rural seat of Tensas Parish in northeastern Louisiana has struggled with aging infrastructure and deteriorating water quality. The system is plagued with leaks. Often, what flows from households’ taps is brown and smelly, the result of high levels of iron and manganese, and residents have grown accustomed to regular notices to boil their water.
But it recent weeks, the problems have deepened significantly.
In mid-December, the state’s governor declared a public health emergency there after tests showed elevated lead levels in a private residence and at City Hall. Health officials now say they have detected lead levels exceeding the federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion in nearly 100 of the town’s homes and businesses — or more than 20 percent of those tested.
Residents, who have been told to steer clear of their taps, are living off bottled water provided by the state. And while lawmakers have set aside funding for much of the estimated $8 million it will take to fix the town’s pipes, change won’t come quickly.
“This could take a year or longer,” Jimmy Guidry, a Louisiana state health officer who’s been overseeing the water monitoring in St. Joseph, said in an interview Thursday.
The issues in St. Joseph — crumbling infrastructure, a paltry budget and overwhelmingly low-income residents at risk of being poisoned by their own water — are increasingly the problems of towns and cities across the United States.
“How do you pay for maintaining or replacing aging infrastructure?” Guidry asked. “Flint, Michigan, brought a lot of attention to this. This is not Flint, as far as [the scale of] the lead levels we’re seeing. But I think this is going to become more and more of a problem for society.”
It already is.
An analysis late last year by Reuters found that Flint, where nearly 100,000 people have gone almost three years without access to safe water after an ill-fated decision to switch the city’s supply source to the Flint River, is not an aberration. The news service found thousands of other spots around the country with lead-contamination rates double those in Flint, though not all were caused by water problems. Last spring, USA Today examined federal data and found that nearly 2,000 water systems spanning all 50 states had tested for excessive levels of lead in recent years. Those systems collectively provide water to about 6 million people.
Nationwide, an estimated 6 million or more lead pipes remain in use by more than 11,000 community water systems serving as many as 22 million Americans. While some cities, such as Lansing, Mich., and Madison, Wis., have replaced all their aging lead pipes, doing so is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking — and one many communities simply cannot afford.
“For every Lansing and Madison, there are thousands of other cities that simply have not kept up with the problem,” Erik Olson, health program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Post last year.
While the greatest concentration of lead service lines is in the Midwest, such pipes remain throughout the country. The American Water Works Association says the cost of replacing them could exceed $30 billion, and neither homeowners nor municipalities are eager to spend that money. But “as long as there are lead pipes in the ground or lead plumbing in homes, some risk remains,” David LaFrance, the group’s chief executive, told The Post. “As a society, we should seize this moment of increased awareness about lead risks to develop solutions for getting the lead out.”
How much the next White House might be inclined to help tackle the problem remains to be seen. President-elect Donald Trump has talked repeatedly about the need to invest in the nation’s infrastructure, though often he has focused on more-visible projects such as roads, bridges and airports.
Still, during his campaign, Trump pledged to make clean water “a high priority.” He proposed developing long-term water infrastructure plans with state and local officials, while tripling funding for revolving-loan programs to help state and local governments upgrade their drinking water and wastewater infrastructure.
As a candidate, Trump vowed to “ensure quality water all across America” and to provide “clean air and clean water for all of our people.”
But whether Congress will fund a massive infrastructure effort — and whether Trump’s commitment will stay strong — is a question mark.
In St. Joseph, a town of less than 1,200 that is perched along the Mississippi River, few people are waiting on help from Washington. Officials are both trying to get the lead out and to overhaul a system that has been deteriorating for years. Until that happens, residents will have to cook, bathe and drink only bottled water.
“The truth is, this should have been fixed years ago,” the new mayor, Elvadus Fields Jr., told the Advocate.
Fields recently unseated a four-term incumbent by a handful of votes, in an election that the paper said “revolved around anger about the continuing water crisis.”