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Would you drink this? When brown tap water is deemed legal and safe

When brown tap water is deemed legal and safe
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Story highlights

  • In St. Joseph, Louisiana, tap water sometimes comes out brown or yellow
  • Tests show the iron in St. Joseph's water is 32 times what the EPA recommends
  • The state says the water is still safe to drink

St. Joseph, Louisiana (CNN)Garrett Boyte's first clue that something was wrong came the day he moved to town.

He showed up for his new job at Christ Episcopal Church in St. Joseph, Louisiana, and saw a note on the refrigerator door: "Don't drink the water."
    Then came his welcome gift: A case of bottled water.
    "I said, 'Well surely it can't be that bad,'" said Boyte, now 23. "I turned (the water) on, and it came out yellow."
    Not much has changed in the 20 months since. About once a week -- Boyte never knows when -- his shower spews putrid yellow or brown water, he said.
    Across town, the water in Elvadus Fields' house is so dirty he won't wash his clothes in it. Every week, he and his wife drive 45 miles to a laundromat, where they know the water won't stain their clothes brown.
    St. Joseph resident Garrett Boyte shows what came out of his bathtub faucet in late January.
    "The water is just terrible and unbearable," Fields said. "I can't quite understand why we have such trouble here in St. Joe."
    Concerns about water safety escalated nationwide after reports of lead poisoning from the tap water in Flint, Michigan. Pediatricians say they believe children with elevated levels of lead in Flint will suffer lifelong consequences.
    Elvadus Fields says he can't afford to move.
    In Flint, a temporary switch of the water source coincided with the high lead levels. Aging water pipes played a role in the lead crisis, as did the failure to add an anti-corrosive agent to protect the water.
    St. Joseph's situation is different: Its water hasn't tested positive for high amounts of lead. Instead, it has tested positive for high levels of iron, which is not considered to be a serious health risk.
    But the problem in the northeastern Louisiana town represents a broader issue in cities across the country: water that is legally safe but often looks disgusting.
    Anxiety permeates the town of 1,100. Like Flint, the water pipes are old -- in St. Joseph's case, about 90 years old. Like Flint, most of the town is black, and at least one-third of the town falls under the poverty line. And like in Flint, residents say they're frustrated with the pace of government action in fixing the water.
    Some St. Joseph residents say they've seen brown or yellow water sporadically for a few years; others say the problem goes back 10 years.
    Louisiana has committed millions of dollars to fix the problem in St. Joseph -- but the town can't access the money due to missing paperwork, state officials say.
    Even after washing the dishes, Garrett Boyte says, the silverware is crusted with sediment.
    So the residents wait and worry, wondering what their water will do to them.
    State Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry said tests have not found dangerous amounts of chemicals in St. Joseph's water.
    It's safe, he says -- but he wouldn't drink it.

    Bathing in brown water

    In St. Joseph, taking a shower could leave you dirtier than not showering at all.
    "Last week, I was taking a shower, and in the middle of my shower, the water turned brown," Boyte said. "And I had shampoo in my hair, so I had to finish."
    A few hours later, he noticed rust-colored streaks covering his towel.
    "And I'm thinking, this is what I bathe in," he said. "This is the life that we have here."
    Glynis Watson Cephus, left, makes coffee with bottled water. Her daughter Sydney Cephus and granddaughter Hailey Birdon don't drink the tap water, either.
    High school teacher Glynis Watson Cephus adds bleach to her bath water -- even though she's not sure whether that's safe.
    "You're taking a chance bathing in it and washing your clothes," she said of the tap water. "I don't wash my white clothes in it."
    Cephus, 52, has lived in St. Joseph her entire life. "It's quiet. It's a good place to raise children," she said. But she won't let her 5-year-old granddaughter taste the tap water.
    Glynis Watson Cephus only uses bottled water for cooking, including for rinsing chicken and boiling pasta.
    The water runs fairly clear several days a week. Yet even on good days, Boyte said, "it smells like metal most of the time."
    No one has reported getting sick directly from the water -- but then again, no one interviewed in St. Joseph said they dared to drink the tap water or to brush their teeth with it.
    Fields, 79, said he can't stand to bathe more than three times a week.
    "That's not healthy for me. I'm not accustomed to that," he said. "But that's the best I can do."
    Fields retired after 32 years as a county agricultural agent. He now spends his days ranching and tending to his show cow, Snow.
    Snow is the only one in the family drinking water from the tap.

    So what's in the water?

    The nonprofit Environmental Working Group's last report on national drinking water revealed 316 contaminants in water supplied to 256 million Americans in 45 states. The group last updated the database in 2009; it is now updating the database.
    But many contaminants don't pose serious health risks.
    On some days, the tap water in St. Joseph is the same rusty color as the water tower.
    In St. Joseph, the state health officer said, the cause of brown water is likely iron -- a chemical element with no federal limits.
    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency divides water contaminants into two categories:
    1) Those that pose a health risk and therefore have legal limits. Arsenic, uranium and lead -- the contaminant causing problems in Flint -- fall under this category.
    2) Those that don't pose a serious health risk but can make drinking water look, smell, or taste bad. This category, which includes iron, manganese and sulfate, has suggested limits -- but no legal limits.
    The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals said tests of St. Joseph's water in 2013 found iron levels of 9.74 milligrams per liter -- 32 times higher than the EPA's suggested limit.
    Garrett Boyte saves bottles of tap water collected from his faucet. The one on the right shows sediment at the bottom; the bottle on the left was recently shaken.
    The average lethal dose of iron is 200-250 mg per kilogram of body weight, the World Health Organization said. In other words, a 150-pound (68-kilogram) person's body would have to have at least 13,600 milligrams of iron -- the amount found in about 1,400 liters of St. Joseph's tap water --- to have grave consequences.
    As for bathing, those sensitive to iron could get a rash, the state health official said.
    Louisiana State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry says the water in St. Joseph is safe, but he wouldn't drink it.
    "But it's not the same thing as if there was bacteria, and they had an open wound," Guidry said. "The iron probably wouldn't cause a whole lot of problems."
    Still, the state health officer said he wouldn't pour himself a glass in St. Joseph.
    "I wouldn't choose to drink it just because I know that it's not aesthetically pleasing," Guidry said. "If you were to get in a bathtub with brown water, you're not going to feel like you're clean, because the water doesn't look clean."

    Who's to blame?

    To solve the water problem, St. Joseph needs $8 million to replace old pipes and pumps, Louisiana's health department said, citing the town's engineering firm. State legislators committed $6 million last year to do just that, said Sharon Gilmore, legislative assistant to state Sen. Francis Thompson.
    But to get state money, cities must be up to date on their financial audits, Gilmore said. And St. Joseph Mayor Edward Brown hasn't turned in his audit for the 2015 fiscal year that ended last June 30.
    Cities and towns have six months after the end of their fiscal years to turn in their paperwork, said Louisiana legislative auditor Daryl Purpera. Certified public accountants usually conduct the audits, which examine a city's revenue, expenses and compliance with other laws.
    Purpera said the mayor has a history of turning in audits late, and is now considered noncompliant.
    St. Joseph Mayor Edward Brown said he is aware of the concern about the water and is "working to solve it."
    Mayor Brown did not return several calls from CNN over several days this month. When approached at his office in St. Joseph, the mayor declined CNN's request for an interview about the town's audits.
    When asked to comment on his residents' concerns about the water, the mayor said, "We are aware of the problem, and we are working to solve it."
    Gov. John Bel Edwards said he has directed the state health department to look into the water problem in St. Joseph.
    "The health and safety of the residents of St. Joseph is of utmost concern," Edwards said in a statement. "While the current situation does not pose an immediate health risk to the residents, it does require our attention after years of neglect."
    Purpera, the state legislative auditor, said the neglect in St. Joseph involves much more than just a late audit. He said while the mayor's paperwork is 1 1/2 months late, the problems with St. Joseph's water system go back years.
    "The mayor needs to do whatever he needs to do to fix the water system. That's not just getting the audit done; that's getting contractors lined up," Purpera said.
    "The audit is about accountability. ... He's basically not providing transparency and accountability."
    Once the mayor submits his audit and has contractors selected, Purpera said, the town will immediately be able to access $1.2 million of the $6 million in state funding. The rest would be awarded as it becomes available.
    As for the final $2 million needed to overhaul St. Joseph's infrastructure, the town could apply for grants or loans, state health department spokeswoman Samantha Faulkner said.
    St. Joseph resident Carmen Bates said she doesn't want to blame anyone -- she just wants her water clear.
    "Everybody's trying to do something, and nobody's accomplishing anything," Bates said.

    Where does the iron come from?

    Most of St. Joseph's iron comes from its water source -- a Mississippi River aquifer, Faulkner said. Corroded iron pipes also contribute to high levels of iron.
    When state engineers inspected St. Joseph's water system in December, they found four major deficiencies -- all related to infrastructure, Faulkner said. She said the mayor is ultimately responsible for the town's water system.
    St. Joseph residents have lived through at least 20 boil-water advisories in the last four years. And they're frustrated.
    About 33% of St. Joseph is under the poverty line. Residents say they've grappled with dirty water for years.
    The state says the number of boil-water advisories in St. Joseph is not uncommon.
    "We've had 37 systems that have had that or more (boil advisories) over the past four years, so it's not more so than other systems," Guidry said.
    About 39% of local water systems in Louisiana have high iron levels, Faulkner said. And half of those places don't have iron removal or separation treatment.
    The main problem: cost.
    "A lot of these treatments can be cost-prohibitive, especially if they're not for health reasons, they're for aesthetic reasons," Faulkner said.
    She said St. Joseph's water is one of the more extreme cases of high iron levels in the state.

    It's not just St. Joseph and Flint

    Dirty water doesn't only strike small towns like St. Joseph.
    Many cities have World War I-era plumbing and treatment facilities that might not be able to handle contaminants produced in densely populated areas, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
    The American Society of Civil Engineers said the country has an estimated 240,000 water main breaks each year.
    Of course, replacing old infrastructure across the country would come at a massive cost. American cities and towns faced an annual shortfall of at least $11 billion to replace infrastructure to meet federal regulations, the Natural Resources Defense Council said, citing a 2009 study from the civil engineers organization.
    "It's an ongoing race that cities all over the country are constantly needing to dig up and replace and fix that infrastructure," said Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the NRDC.
    Colby Nagem, owner of the Fish Tale Grill, says the water in St. Joseph is driving down property values. He says some people buy very inexpensive houses in St. Joseph and move the houses to nearby communities.
    The nonprofit American Water Works Association says it would cost $1 trillion over 25 years to restore and expand aging water systems across the country to meet the needs of a growing population.
    "Much of our drinking water infrastructure ... is nearing the end of its useful life and approaching the age at which it needs to be replaced," the association said in a report.
    But cities can only do so much, Mogerman said. Most cities can only replace the pipes they own.
    Any troublesome pipes between, say, the street and a kitchen faucet would belong to the homeowner. And if lines are lead, there's not much the city can do about it.
    The Natural Resources Defense Council said relatively few cities violate national standards for drinking water, but this is more a result of weak standards than it is of low contaminant levels.
    The EPA regularly examines the list of nonregulated contaminants and evaluates whether certain contaminants need to be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA spokeswoman Monica Lee said.

    The cost of dirty water

    For a town with about 33% of its residents under the poverty line, paying for bottled water means pouring money down the drain.
    Cephus said she spends between $100-$125 a month on bottled water for her family. That's on top of her monthly water bill of about $50.
    "That doesn't seem fair to me ... that people are paying for water that they can only use to flush the toilet," Boyte said.
    When the water looks especially filthy, Boyte drives 1 1/2 hours to his parents' or grandparents' home to shower or do laundry.
    In his own pristine white, antebellum house, he keeps bottles filled with murky brown water from the faucet. Silt and sediment has settled at the bottom of two bottles.
    "You look at that, and you think, 'Wow, gosh, you know, what would that do to my kidney or my liver?'" he said. "The body can't filter that kind of stuff out."
    Fields said he would love to leave St. Joseph -- but can't.
    Reginald Gray, 26, buys bottled water to bathe his 5-month-old son.
    "If I was financially able, I would move from here," the retiree said. "I'm just not financially able to buy another house at this (stage) in our lives."
    At the town's lone grocery store, Mac's Fresh Market, shoppers chat about high school basketball as they push carts filled with bottled water. Produce manager Reginald Gray said he won't touch the tap water. He buys bottled water from the store to bathe his 5-month-old son.
    So what will happen when his son gets old enough to shower on his own?
    "Hopefully, I'm gone by that time," he said. "Or they at least fix the water."
    In the meantime, Boyte said, St. Joseph will continue to lag behind much of the country.
    "The fact that in 2016, we're allowing this to happen, where we have Third World communities in the United States that have to deal with poor water quality, to me is unreal."