Louisiana Declares Public Health Emergency Surrounding Small Town’s Drinking Water

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Each week for months, Janet Thornton has spent $20 to buy drinking water for her husband and herself.

Water comes out of a faucet in St. John, Louisiana. (Credit: Janet Thornton via CNN)

Water comes out of a faucet in St. John, Louisiana. (Credit: Janet Thornton via CNN)

“We don’t have a lot of money,” she said, “so we just boil the water on the stove for our dogs. No one has told us if that’s OK.”

This past spring, the town of St. Joseph was dealing with “not aesthetically pleasing” brown water running through residents’ faucets. State health officials said then it was not dangerous.

Now, a few months later, water in this Louisiana town of about 1,000 shows high amounts of lead in some samples, and it may be dangerous.

On Dec. 16, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a public health emergency in the town after two of 13 site samples the day before showed elevated levels of lead, which was absent from water samples at the start of the year.

Two other residences had elevated levels of copper, according to a Friday release from the governor’s office. “The town of St. Joseph has experienced water problems for years due to the poorly maintained and deteriorating water distribution system. Frequent breaks in the water distribution system provide a potential health risk because of the drop in water pressure,” the release added.

Monday, Edwards visited St. Joseph along with state health officials, urging residents to use bottled water for brushing teeth and food preparation.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is asking people not to drink the tap water for at least 30 days, according to State Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry. The state is handing out 3 liters of drinking water per person per day for the next 30 days, he said, as officials attempt to test water from every running water source.

A bottle left by health officials from Baton Rouge to collect samples sat on her porch Tuesday, Thornton said. She has been told to expect results from the water samples in two to four weeks.

“Right now, we’re buying gallon jugs to wash our hair and using adult washrags to bathe because our water is only good for flushing toilets,” Thornton said. But Guidry said he is not worried about the absorption of lead through the skin.

Thornton and her husband still receive a $50 water bill every month. Neither she nor her husband have received the 6 liters of water allocated to their household since the Public Health Emergency was issued by the governor.

Thornton doesn’t blame Edwards, but rather the outgoing mayor of St. Joseph, Edward Brown, who has been mayor since 2000. She blames him for financial problems that stalled the new water management system that was planned for installation this year.

“I’m so glad they voted Mayor Brown out,” she said.

In March 2016, Brown was accused of mismanaging and misappropriating funds, according to an investigative audit by the state legislative auditor. The audit also found Brown had sole control over construction contracts and awarded contracts to his cousin, Bobby Conner, amounting to $127,058 over five years.

Last year, the state committed $6 million to help fix the town’s roughly 90-year-old water infrastructure. But the town couldn’t access the money until the mayor turned in his annual town audit, which was due Dec. 31, 2015.

“We completed the audit this June and the money was released,” Brown told CNN. He called the late completion “a glitch.”

A new mayor takes over in January, one who, Thornton hopes, will address the town’s water management issue immediately.

“Most people are farmers and there is not a lot of money in this town,” she said. “Lots of people don’t have vehicles, so my guess is they’re drinking and bathing in this water.”