Water Emergency in Louisiana Town Follows Years of Concern Over Aging Infrastructure
For more than a year, officials have been concerned about discolored water.
— -- For more than a year, state health officials and residents of the small town of St. Joseph, Louisiana, have been worried about discolored tap water tied to aging infrastructure, waiting for an audit to free up funds to update the water system.
Last week, the town's water supply tested positive for high levels of lead and copper in two different locations, which prompted Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards to declare a public health emergency and direct residents to use bottled water instead of tap water.
Aging water pipes and infrastructure have concerned health officials for years, according to Dr. Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana State Health Officer. But, in the last year, the state's health department has stepped up testing to check for lead or other dangerous substances in the water.
High levels of iron and manganese were previously found to be causing the discoloration in the water, Guidry explained. Though the discolored water was not believed to be unsafe, health officials were concerned that deteriorating pipes could lead to increased lead levels.
"The Town of St. Joseph has experienced water problems for years due to the poorly maintained and deteriorating water distribution system," the governor's office said in a statement last week. "Frequent breaks in the water distribution system provide a potential health risk because of the drop in water pressure."
Though the state has made repairs to the pipes in the past, the problem has grown.
"We've had more repairs this year than last year and the repairs are taking longer and longer," Guidry said.
While declaring a public health emergency, Edwards also ordered a month's worth of bottled water sent to the town so residents didn't have to use tap water.
"Out of an abundance of caution, the Louisiana Department of Health recommends that residents use an alternative source of water for personal consumption, including making ice, brushing teeth or using it for food preparation and rinsing of foods," the Governor's office said in a statement.
Guidry said state health officials plan to test every home in the town and the residents' lead levels through blood tests.
"So far we don't have evidence that it is in the blood of any [level of] concern," Guidry. "But right now we are promoting that children get tested."
The state government is hoping to replace all the water infrastructure in the town of approximately 1,100 within a year, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health told ABC News. She said funds to fix the St. Joseph water system were delayed pending an audit of 2015 finances, which finished in June of 2016. The state health department has designated $8 million for the replacement.
The town's water issues have been compounded by new scrutiny that has faced their Mayor, Edward Brown. Brown was accused in a state audit of mismanaging funds in March, awarding work to his cousin without properly documenting the payments. He is now under criminal investigation, according to state police.
Brown denied wrongdoing in an interview with CNN.
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