America’s water crisis slams a small La. town


America’s crisis over the lack of safe drinking water feels like it’s spiraling out of control these days. It was just a couple of days ago that I told you about an emergency in Corpus Christi, Texas, where shoddy practices by a local Big Oil subsidiary had caused gallons of a highly toxic, carcinogenic chemical to back up into the Gulf Coast city’s main water supply. The crisis forced officials to ban water usage as customers scoured Corpus Christi for bottled water. It was just the latest of dozens of outbreaks of either lead or chemical contamination in U.S. public water supplies, a crisis that has accelerated since the flurry of bad and occasionally sinister decisions by officials in Michigan that poisoned tap water in Flint, Michigan.

The wheels of justice turn slowly, but sometimes they do turn. This week, there were new criminal charges in the Flint fiasco:

FLINT, Mich. — A criminal investigation into this city’s water crisis reached into the top ranks of supervision over Flint on Tuesday as Michigan officials announced felony charges against two former state-appointed emergency managers, accusing them of fixating on saving money rather than on the safety of residents.

The managers, who were appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to lead Flint out of fiscal distress, were charged over their roles in the public health crisis prompted by the city’s switch to a new water source, as well as the delays in responding to residents’ complaints as they suffered the devastating effects.

Announcing the charges at a banquet center not far from the Flint River, Bill Schuette, the state’s attorney general, described “a fixation on finances and balance sheets” as at the root of what happened in Flint, where the water has been tied to the lead poisoning of children and the deaths of 12 people from Legionnaires’ disease.

“All too prevalent in this Flint water investigation was a priority on balance sheets and finances rather than health and safety of the citizens of Flint,” said Mr. Schuette, a Republican who is seen as a possible candidate for governor in 2018.

Make no mistake: It’s great news that some of the higher-ups in Flint are finally being held accountable. The bad news is that too many other cities and small towns have made the same kind of mistakes — ignoring persistent pollution problems for decades, or overlooking the need for critical infrastructure repairs either because there’s not enough money or not enough political will, or both. Typically, the problems are the worst in poor communities, often with a large non-white population, that lack both resources and good leadership.

Now, there’s a new crisis, and it’s hitting a small town in the northeastern corner of my home state of Louisiana. The water emergency in the small town of St. Joseph, La., is one of the worst we’ve seen yet:

Residents in the Louisiana town of St Joseph have been told they should not drink from their taps after tested water showed high levels of lead and may possibly be dangerous. A public health emergency was called in the town on 16 December, with the state’s governor, John Bel Edwards arriving on Monday (19 December) to meet local officials.

Abnormally coloured and foul smelling water had been noted in the town as early as February but the state had said that it was safe to drink. Some recent samples showed high levels of lead while two showed high levels of copper. One of the samples showing elevated levels of lead was from the town hall, the governor’s office said. A new wave of sampling is now taking place in the town while every resident is being given three litres of water each day by state personnel.

According to CNN, many residents are blaming the outgoing mayor, Edward Brown, for the water issues. He has been accused by the state legislative auditor of pocketing government funds and handing contracts to his own family members.

The mayor’s lateness handing over the town audit meant that a $6m grant from the state to reconstruct the town’s almost 90-year-old water system was not released for months. Brown was defeated in the last election and will be replaced by Elvadus Fields in January. St. Joseph is an African American majority town of just over 1,000 residents which covers less than a mile of land.

This is an abomination. The mismanagement of public drinking water may be happening on a local level, but it’s taking place in so many different communities that it needs to be viewed as a national emergency, deserving of a massive response. Our incoming president, Donald Trump, has sent mixed signals — promising to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new infrastructure projects that surely would include water-system overhauls, yet alsonaming as his environmental watchdogs various industry types who seem to have little concern about water pollution. But this is also a failing of Louisiana state officials, who for decades have placed environmental concerns on the back burner. The health tragedy now playing out in St. Joseph should not be allowed to occur anywhere.

Read more about the criminal charges in Flint from the New York Times:

Find out more about the water crisis in Sr. Joseph from the International Business Times:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2016 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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