Photos from Garrett Boyte show the decline from yellowish water to murky, muddy water
St. Joseph, Louisiana, is drawing comparisons to Flint, Michigan. Both are small towns with a predominately black population and high poverty rates; both have serious water problems that implicate both the local and state government.
St. Joseph is a picturesque little town of 1,000 along the Mississippi River, originally planned alongside a quaint New England-inspired town green; nearly half of the residents live beneath the poverty line, and the town is deeply segregated with divisions between the more affluent white residents and the majority black residents who make up nearly 80% of the population.
The town has had issues with their water infrastructure for over a decade according to local residents. In 2012, safety concerns led to a boil advisory. The advisory was later lifted, but the water remains discolored, at times severely, and some residents are working to get to the root of the issue and resolve it.
Garrett Boyte, a member of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, is a recent resident of the town who moved there as part of his work with the diocesan Young Servant Leaderships Corps. The Corps started an ecumenical coalition of churches, the Tensas Faith Community, to deliver meals and help local residents struggling with poverty. The group had a promising start, bringing together several local churches across racial lines, but the coalition struggled when Boyte tried to focus attention on the water issues following a particularly bad period of water quality.
Boyte says that the coalition started to fray when some members blamed the popular Mayor, and other members defended him; regardless of local rivalries, Boyte says his goal is apolitical in nature. He simply wants the water issues to be resolved, and believes it’s possible. He’s sensitive to the racial dynamics involved (the Mayor is the first African American mayor of the town), but wants the town to move forward with solving the water quality, instead of focusing on assigning blame for the situation.
Critics of Mayor Edward Brown say he is the stumbling block for fixing the water system. The State government already allocated over $6 million dollars to replace aging pipes and upgrade the infrastructure, but the town can not receive the money. The money will only be released when the town completes the audit for the financial year ending in June, 2015, which the legislative auditor’s office says has still not been submitted, according to an article in the News Star. The town has had problems submitting their audits previously. KNOE-TV, based in Monroe LA, wrote about irregularities in the 2014 audit, filed late, which show a number of financial irregularities, including missing and unaccounted for money.
Local news outlet MyArkLaMiss reported on a town hall meeting where Mayor Brown traced some of the problems with audits back to a lawsuit from the Locust Ridge Gas Company, who shut off the supply of gas to St. Joseph and neighboring Town of Newellton. Locust Ride claimed that both towns owed them over $122,000 in payments. St. Joseph lost the suit, and was sued by Newellton for control of the line, which they claim Mayor Brown mishandled.
The State and Parish authorities are apparently unable to directly resolve the water infrastructure issues without authorization from the Mayor, who has not given any indication he will authorize an intervention.
The EPA has stated that the water in St. Joseph is safe, having tested it at the source. Of course, this raises the comparison to Flint, Michigan, where the EPA and government authorities assured residents that their water was safe to drink; later tests showed it was contaminated at twice the level of toxic waste. Acidity in the water had corroded pipes, causing high levels of lead to enter the drinking water. Boyte says the Diocese may test the water quality at the taps to make sure that the EPA and the State Department of Health and Hospitals are not overlooking a serious health problem.
The water recently became even more discolored; previously it had a yellowish cast which stained clothes washed with it, but it’s now a deep, murky, muddy brown. This increase in opacity has made fixing the problem a more pressing issue for Boyte and other residents.
Salon has just posted a story which touches on St. Joseph and a number of other towns with water problems; did you realize that so many towns in America were facing issues with water quality of this severity? What can we do to address and resolve these problems nation-wide?