Good news and bad news in the quest for safe tap water


Late last year, I told you about the dire situation in the small, mostly black and underprivileged Louisiana community of St. Joseph. For years, residents had complained about the brackish and discolored water that flowed from their tap. But a largely unresponsive City Hall ignored those complaints, as did mostly unaware state and federal regulators. When the city water was finally tested in 2016, officials found shockingly high levels of lead — very similar to the situation in Flint, Michigan, that had generated so much controversy.

But the story in St. Joseph does have a relatively happy ending. For one thing, residents had known to avoid the foul-smelling tap water for years, and so tests have so far showed — somewhat surprisingly — that no children are suffering from lead poisoning. What’s more, there’s a Democratic-led administration in Baton Rouge and — unlike past Republican governors such as Bobby Jindal, who allowed problems like the sinkhole in Bayou Corne to fester for months without lifting a finger — Gov. John Bel Edwards sprung into action. (It’s also worth noting he was pressed by Louisiana’s increasingly strong environmental community, including nationally acclaimed environmental scientist Wilma Subra and retired Gen. Russel Honore of the Green Army.) Edwards declared a public-health emergency and procured $8 million in urgent funding that will replace the aging water pipes in St. Joseph by September. In the meanwhile, the government is supplying clean water for “water buffaloes” — large water tanks where residents can fill up.

That’s probably the best possible outcome for this Louisiana small town, but as a lengthy report on the Desmog Blog notes, there’s also bad news, in the scores of other U.S. communities with tainted tap water or ancient delivery systems that are still waiting for action:

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ report card for U.S. infrastructure also suggests systemic change is needed. The society gave the country a D on drinking water infrastructure.

Federal help available to states for upgrading water systems is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed across the country.

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an outline of actions to improve the safety and reliability of the nation’s drinking water. But with the Trump administration’s proposed massive budget cuts for the EPA, it is doubtful the agency will have the money or the will to carry out those plans effectively or enforce key regulations that protect drinking water.

While the EPA announced on January 10 $1 billion will be available as loans for water infrastructure projects, the agency has estimated that the U.S. needs about $660 billion in investments for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure improvements over the next 20 years.

For perspective, the United States has one million miles of drinking water infrastructure, and 12 of those miles are now being replaced in St. Joseph.

Honore told the website he believes there are as many as 50 towns in Louisiana alone that needed this type of aggressive action. The article notes: “‘Clean water is a human right,’ he said, but in order to provide it, he thinks current systems of water delivery need to be transformed. Honoré suggested smaller towns’ water systems be consolidated into larger regional systems.”

Leaders of both political parties, including President Trump, agree that America needs to massively increase the amount of money that our nation spends on infrastructure. Unfortunately, some of the plans in circulation place a heavy emphasis on roads and bridges but overlook the clear need for a major overhaul of our water systems. That’s a mistake. Massive spending on our water infrastructure will create thousands of jobs while improving the health of our citizens. It’s hard to imagine a better investment.

Read more about the water solution in St. Joseph from the Desmog Blog:

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 2017 – 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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