When the water is running brown in the town of St. Joseph, it almost looks like chocolate. In a bottle, after it gets time to settle, the iron and sediment filter out of the water like a dirty snow globe.
Federal and state health officials have consistently said that the iron that plagues St. Joseph’s drinking water is not a public health problem, but a cosmetic one.
Some scientists are now saying that's not the case, that while the iron itself may not be hazardous to your health, what it does to drinking water is.
When Bryan Griggs turns on the tap in his home in St Joseph, he never knows what he's going to get.
“Sometimes it'll just be cloudy and it looks like milk. Other times it's just brown like the water in the puddles,” Griggs said.
Some days it runs clear. On the day we visited, the water was running yellow.
“Bathing in it? We really have no other choice I guess,” Griggs said.
WWL-TV sent two St. Joseph water samples to an EPA-certified lab in Florida for testing from in February.
Those independent tests confirmed the findings of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. The water has extremely high levels of iron and manganese. One of the samples tested at more than 230 times the EPA's recommended level for iron, .3mg/L.
“That's not something we regulate because it's something for color purposes, it's not a serious threat to your health,” said Louisiana’s State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry in February.
The EPA doesn't require that states enforce the agency's set of so-called secondary drinking water standards because high iron and manganese have not been considered health risks.
“It's not gonna cause an infection. It might cause a rash. You might have an allergy to iron but it's not gonna make you sick like the bacteria or the amoeba,” Guidry said.
But St. Joe is not alone. DHH tests have shown 457 water systems across the state have had iron levels above the EPA's recommended level. About half of them do not treat the water to remove iron, including the Slidell Water Supply, Abita Springs Water and St. Tammany Water Districts 2 and 3.
Two hundred forty-four water systems treat the water to remove iron, including the East Baton Rouge water system and the water system for Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola Prison.
So does the town of St. Joseph.
“There's one right over on Oak Street here. Water is gushing out into the drainage ditch,” said St. Joe resident Vincent Peri, about the town’s latest break in a water line.
After more than a week of water gushing out of it, a three-man crew worked to repair it Monday. Standing in a hole full of muddy water, with his hands submerged, a worker repaired the gusher, and they backfilled the hole.
Peri traded Katrina's flood waters for St. Joe's sometimes-brown water. He and the other residents deal with the system's repeated water main breaks from its decaying pipes.
After workers patch the leaks, more iron is flushed out of the system, pushing brown water out of people's taps.
“We're very concerned about why is it like this and why can't they fix it,” Peri said.
For years, residents in St. Joseph have been told the problems with the water are cosmetic, and not a real public health concern. But new research stemming from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan may make residents ask some questions about the impact of iron on their water.
“What we've discovered in the last, say, five or ten years is a legitimate public health concern about having too much iron and manganese in the water,” said Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech.
Edwards is the researcher who helped expose the magnitude of lead in Flint’s water. He says high iron in Flint's water was partly to blame for that town’s water crisis.
“This is part of the scientific process that this doesn't just look bad, it poses a significant public health threat,” Edwards said.
While the iron itself won't likely make people sick, Edwards says high iron in the water can remove disinfectants like chlorine, allowing harmful bacteria to grow.
Bacteria like legionella, which causes Legionnaire’s Disease. That's what Edwards said he believes may have happened in Flint.
So far, Michigan state health officials have linked 12 deaths to Legionnaire’s disease. In all, 91 cases of it were reported in Genesee County, Michigan in a 17-month period from 2014-2015.
No direct link has been made to Flint’s water supply. About 50 of the cases were traced back to an infection at an area hospital.
Legionnaire's disease is a lung infection caused by breathing in contaminated water droplets. The disease also causes high fever and diarrhea. Legionnaire's disease can be fatal.
An annual DHH report on Legionella shows the number of reported cases in Louisiana has more than doubled over the past ten years. None of them was in St. Joe. Most were in some of the state’s most populous parishes: Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany.
The DHH report doesn't say how the infected patients contracted the disease. The Centers for Disease Control estimates as few as 2 percent of legionella cases ever get reported.
But beyond disease, Edwards said there's another danger with high iron in drinking water.
“Part of it was the result of Flint and another case study that was done, but it increases the leeching of lead into the water,” Edwards said.
Ingesting lead in the water has been shown to have drastic consequences for people's health.
LSU professor Dr Adrienne Katner just completed a study of lead in New Orleans' water. As a result, she says some St Joe residents asked her to test their water for lead.
“I only collected three samples and to find that level of lead in one third of the samples I collected, one of the samples, it makes me a little concerned about other homes that are in that area what they may have that I didn't sample,” Katner said.
WWL-TV’s water test samples came from the same house that was a red flag for Katner.
Our tests revealed lead in the water, but at a level lower than in Katner's sample, and below the EPA's so-called action standard, the level at which water systems have to take action to remove it.
“The release of lead particulates into the water is very erratic and it's very difficult to monitor because of that. You could have low lead levels in your water one day and high lead levels in your water another day,” she said.
While most of her tests showed lead levels below the EPA's action level, health officials, and the EPA all agree that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. Water should not have any lead in it.
State lawmakers introduced a bill this legislative session to try and enforce the EPA’s secondary standards in Louisiana, like a number of other states do.
In a fiscal note for the bill, DHH said the agency couldn't estimate the cost to remove the secondary contaminants because it would be different for each water system.
The fiscal note does say it would cost the agency more than a million dollars a year to enforce the standards.
“There's over 1360 water systems. A lot of small systems. A lot of rural systems. If we mandated that they had to correct their color problems, their iron problems, none of them would be able to afford to do so. I wouldn't be able to enforce it,” Guidry said.
The bill has since been modified to only force St. Joe to meet the secondary standards.
While some agencies argue it’s cost-prohibitive and that some poor communities couldn’t afford the water if forced to foot the bill to remove the standards, the scientists say it's a question of the state’s priorities.
St. Joe's water problem still isn't really getting repaired because the town still can't access state funds to fix the system.
The town's mayor, who has said he hasn't drank the water in decades, has yet to submit the town's annual financial audit to the legislative auditor, and that's holding up state money earmarked to help fix the town’s water system.
Last Friday, a fiscal committee voted to ask a judge to take decision-making authority away from the mayor and the town's board of aldermen and hand it over to a receiver.
A court date has not yet been set on it, but it should happen within 20 days.
The DHH responded with this statement:
The federal EPA sets the enforceable standards for safe drinking water. EPA also defines secondary standards for contaminants such as iron. Secondary standards are not enforceable per the Safe Drinking Water Act.The drinking water quality standards in St. Joseph, especially those related to the secondary contaminants such as iron, are attributable to the water source and to a water system that is aging andin in need of major repairs. The State of Louisiana, including the Department of Health and Hospitals and multiple other state agencies, are actively working to try and help the town secure the funding that will allow repairs to be made to both the water system’s treatment plant and its distribution system. These repairs are the most important step the town can take to reduce iron in the drinking water and improve the overall quality of its water.