(This report is part of the “Troubled Water” project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.)
CAMPTI, La. — Deep in the winding mass of crumbling back streets in Campti, Leroy Hayes sets a glass of water from his faucet in a patch of sunlight on the railing of his porch and watches specks of sediment float to the top.
Hayes said the town’s water system has been bad for years, with water often coming out brown and smelling like bleach. The family uses bottled water for drinking and cooking and often has to drive to the city of Natchitoches, 11 miles away, to wash their clothes. The Campti water leaves their clothes with a yellowish tint.
“Don’t nobody drink that mess,” Hayes said.
Like many poor African-American communities, Campti’s poverty is a significant impediment to making crucial improvements to the town’s infrastructure – including its old water system. Hayes is a lifelong resident of the town, where according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of the predominantly African-American population lives in poverty. Campti’s median household income is only $15,428.
Skepticism about drinking water is pervasive in many black communities, most recently in the urban cities like Milwaukee, where high childhood lead poisoning rates plague the city, and Flint, Michigan, where lead from pipes leached into the city’s water. But it also affects the pockets of poverty in states such as Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina and Texas, where many residents rely on antiquated water systems and haphazard monitoring or live near businesses and industries whose waste, they say, pollutes their water systems.
“Everything that happens now where people don’t want it, it goes into a poor and black neighborhood,” said Esther Calhoun, president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice.
A News21 national analysis of water violations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that tens of millions of Americans are drinking contaminated water – particularly in small, low-income and minority communities. Aging infrastructure and limited funding are two of the major water issues posing a threat to public health, according to the agency’s 2016 Drinking Water Action Plan.
“For someone to say that there’s not a correlation to me means they have their eyes closed, or they don’t want to believe that these impacts are actually happening or don’t want to dedicate the resources to these communities,” said Mustafa Ali, the former assistant associate administrator for environmental justice at the EPA.
In Uniontown, Alabama, black residents blame a swell of gastrointestinal complications on the waste from a nearby catfish farm they say pollutes their drinking water. In parts of North Carolina, impoverished African-Americans sometimes rely on contaminated wells for drinking water – though public water systems run just a few feet from their homes.
“The probability of drinking water violations is significantly greater in communities that are both poor and nonwhite,” said Manuel Teodoro, a Texas A&M University professor and the co-author of “Class, Race, Ethnicity, and Justice in Safe Water Compliance,” a 2017 study of violations across the country. “What’s troubling from an environmental justice perspective is that race and ethnicity matter most when people are poor.”
The water system in Campti is more than 50 years old, according to an audit from the Louisiana legislative auditor. Near the end of 2016, the water tank sprang several holes, some of which were temporarily plugged with sticks. A new tank was built in March, but residents still don’t trust that the water is safe.
Annette Caskey lives in one of the poorest areas of Campti – a small community called Sherry Circle. Broken pavement leads to a small hill, where worn dirt paths climb to small trailer-like houses. Caskey’s tap water is often orange or brown. Rather than drink it, she buys water by the caseload at the local Brookshire’s or M&M Grocery. Her dogs also get bottled water.
“This water sucks,” Caskey said. “Sometimes it’s got too much chlorine in it, and sometimes it’s got no chlorine at all. It’s like you’re drinking sewage.” For a long time, residents were getting sick with diarrhea and other issues, Caskey said. She said it stopped for a while, but people have started getting sick again.
Campti is the oldest settlement along the Red River, whose waters snake from northwest Texas down to the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana. Worn-down roads lead to the town’s meager collection of businesses, which include a Dollar General, a Papa John’s and a couple of gas stations – the Campti Quick Stop and an All-N-1.
Judy Daniels, Campti’s mayor from 2006-2010, said most of the town’s water infrastructure is anywhere from 40 to 60 years old, and the town doesn’t have money to fix it. She said the water does have problems, and they get worse after a storm or power outage because the water pump does not have a backup generator.
“The funds just aren’t there for us,” Daniels said. “We’re the stepchildren.”
Campti’s water system has had seven health-based violations. Six of those came in the 1990s, when tests showed the presence of coliform bacteria – a sign that feces or sewage could be contaminating the water. The only health-based violation this decade was in 2014, when Campti’s system received a treatment violation, meaning there was a deficiency that was not properly treated.
“It’s been like this ever since I’ve been here, and I grew up here,” Caskey said.
There have been no other recent health violations. But then, testing the water for the last five years has been up to the local utilities that manage the water. Budget cuts in 2012 forced the Louisiana Office of Public Health to lay off the state’s sanitarians, the people responsible for taking water samples. According to an audit by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, during that time – from 2012 until January 2017 – the state could not be sure the results were accurate.
The town of Tallulah, 150 miles east of Campti, has had 11 health-based violations dating to 1991. In 2015, coliform was found in the system.
Much of Tallulah was born from the 1,440-acre Scottland Plantation, where an old mansion still stands, the only remnant of the former village of Richmond, which was destroyed during Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Today, Tallulah’s median household income is $23,317, about half of the state’s average. About 40 percent of the population – which is 77 percent black – lives in poverty, including 60 percent of its children.
Tallulah, Louisiana from News21 on Vimeo.
Decorian Herring lives with his two daughters in one of the most impoverished parts of Tallulah, a sparsely populated complex named Magnolia Villas. The neighborhood often floods during storms, and, more than once, he’s seen alligators swimming between the rows of apartments.
The tap water is usually discolored and has a strong odor, Herring said. But it gets worse after a storm floods the complex.
“Sometimes you’ll run the water in the tub … and you’ll see the water come out green or brown,” Herring said. “A lot of times we’ll get the letter around here that they’re going to be shutting the water off for a couple of hours because of the contamination.”
The water started getting worse about a year ago, Herring said. People in the complex started getting sick with stomach viruses, and they stopped drinking the water. He said he’s constantly buying cases of bottled water for his family.
“You never really know when the boil advisory is,” Herring said. “The majority of the time it comes late in the mail. They’ll have already started it.”
The Rev. Tommy Watson, pastor of East Star Baptist Church and one of Tallulah’s aldermen, said the town has been “repairing and patching” the system for the last several years. The town had four or five boil advisories in 2016, which is more than normal, Watson said. Two of those came when a water main broke.
Tallulah Mayor Paxton Branch said the town plans to replace its system. The current system is so old that companies don’t make the parts necessary for some repairs. Right now, the city has about $6 million of the $10 million needed to begin construction.
For some residents, the new system can’t come fast enough. Hours after the mayor explained his plan for a new system, a water main broke, leaving large swaths of the town without water.
Pamela Oliver says she doesn’t trust the water enough to use it for anything but cooking and cleaning.
Louisiana only recognizes the lowest level of EPA standards and does not regularly test for secondary issues, such as color and odor, the most common complaints in towns like Campti and Tallulah.
“The problem with Louisiana is that we only recognize the lowest EPA ratings for our water, which means our water is safe,” said Lady Carlson of Together Louisiana, a statewide advocacy group. “So the water in St. Joseph, they said was safe. It looks like gumbo, but you can drink it. In six months, we had the problem fixed.”
Louisiana’s St. Joseph is the site of the state’s most-publicized water system failure. After pipes in the town’s decrepit water system began to corrode, lead and copper leached into the system.
“When you look at the areas with crumbling infrastructure, it’s in communities of color and low-income communities,” said Ali, the former EPA official.
In his post with the EPA, Ali oversaw the office tasked with advocating for populations inordinately affected by environmental issues – low-income communities, African-Americans, Latinos and Native American tribes. Ali resigned over disagreements with President Donald Trump’s administration.
The Environmental Justice Office is one of several EPA departments that face elimination under the president’s proposed budget.
Yet, across the country, Americans of color are growing more concerned about their drinking water, according to a 2017 Gallup poll. Up from 73 percent in 2015, 80 percent of nonwhite respondents now worry “a great deal” about their water.
"If we don't help our most vulnerable communities to not only be healthier but to be more economically viable, then we leave a gap in our country, and it weakens us," Ali said.
In Melville, about an hour northwest of Baton Rouge in southern Louisiana, the town’s water system is served by a single 54-year-old well. One of the country’s poorest communities, it has just over 1,000 residents and a median household income of $17,670.
The self-proclaimed “Catfish Capital of the World” sits on the banks of the Atchafalaya River – one of the state’s most iconic and beloved geographic features. But the town has no second well or backup plan. If the well goes down, the state of Louisiana will have to send trucks of water to keep the town from drying out.
Its system also has been poorly maintained and doesn’t have enough money to pay for upgrades, said Mayor Erana Mayes. In 2013, the water system was $125,541 in the red, and in 2014, $62,971 in utility payments went missing. Leaks regularly spring in the underground pipes. But when one leak is clamped, another pops up down the line.
“We’re constantly using chlorine. That’s a daily thing,” Mayes said. “Our water is good, now. Nothing is wrong with it. It’s just the expense of it.”
Carlson said most of the problems in rural towns – like Tallulah and Melville – come from outdated water systems and aging pipes. But there’s little money to make repairs, much less replace the pipes.
“There’s just been a lack of attention to these neighborhoods and a lack of political will to get things done,” said Carlson.
Uniontown, Alabama from News21 on Vimeo.
In southern Alabama’s Uniontown, a community first established around a slave plantation, water quality is a persistent worry for the mostly black residents, who say a nearby catfish farm contaminates their town water system.
“Everybody knows about the smell and water in Uniontown. It’s bad,” said Demetrius Holmes, who says he’s been in and out of the hospital 20 times because of gastrointestinal complications. “They just say gastroparesis, or acid reflux. I’ve heard them all. But no one can figure out what’s wrong with my intestines.”
He says it’s the water.
“You have 2,000 to 2,200 people that live here in Uniontown and just about all of us have problems, and a lot of us have the same problems,” said Ben Eaton, vice president of the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. “But as far as good water, I can’t say it’s good. Too many issues around it to just say.”
Mark Elliott, a civil engineer and researcher at the University of Alabama, claims a nearby catfish farm plays a part. “They have been disposing their industrial wastewater to the Uniontown system.”
“The system was not designed to take that load. Basically, … their wastewater volume is equivalent to the whole town put together,” he said. “So their system ended up being underdesigned. It’s bursting the side of the lagoon and running off into the stream constantly.”
In another community in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, residents relied for years on contaminated well water – even though most everyone around received water from a public system. “The well water was bad,” said Robert Campbell, a pastor in the community. “Now, we can basically say what is in there. Fecal matter, benzene, arsenic ... but it wasn’t safe to drink.”
This year, the community was hooked up to public water and sewer services.
“We didn't have the basic amenities, like clean water and sewer,” Campbell said. “There were a lot of things we were looking at, saying, why isn’t it in another community that looks almost like us except for the ethnicity of the community?”
In Sandbranch, Texas, residents don’t have a public drinking water system at all. Just 14 miles from downtown Dallas, residents used to rely on private wells supplied by groundwater but don’t anymore. Most drink bottled water delivered by the local church each week.
“It would be a miracle if we could ever turn our tap on and get running water,” said 83-year-old Ivory Hall Jr., who makes a 20-mile round trip to the city of Ferris to fill a water tank and hauls it home.
Leroy Thomas has lived in Sandbranch for 40 years and says the water used to be drinkable. He claims the groundwater was contaminated by illegal dumping and more recently, a nearby wastewater treatment.
[DecodeDC podcast: The Texas town with no drinking water]
“The runoff, the illegal dumping, the tires … all of the waste that people bring in here, it’s going in the ground,” he said.
News21 requested water testing records for Sandbranch. But an email from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said, “After reviewing the appropriate resources of the TCEQ, we were unable to locate any responsive information in the possession of the TCEQ.
Most of the community’s 100 or fewer residents live in ramshackle houses they can’t sell because they wouldn’t make enough money to move.
“This is America and in the 21st century, people living in the shadows of the most prosperous urban area as far as job creation for the last five years deserve water,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who presides over the Dallas County Commissioners Court. “We got families that can stand on a hill and can look at downtown Dallas and don’t have running drinking water. That’s what we’re trying to fix.”
A 2016 report to President Barack Obama outlined several problems affecting water quality across the nation, including aging systems and lead service lines. According to the report, called “Science and Technology to Ensure the Safety of the Nation’s Drinking Water,” lead pipes have become a common problem in old cities and the Midwest. The American Water Works Association estimates 6.1 million lead service lines remain in the U.S. and serve 15 million to 22 million people.
“You hear time and time again this issue with aging infrastructure, and you have the lead pipes being part of the issue,” said Jacqueline Patterson, the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. “You have this recipe for disaster like what we found in Flint.”
In Milwaukee, about 70,000 homes are connected to the city’s water system with aging lead pipes, many of which run under low-income and African-American communities in the city’s northside neighborhoods. These lead pipes – along with the 130,000 homes with lead-based paint – contribute to the high numbers of poisoned children, according to the 2014 Report on Childhood Lead Poisoning in Wisconsin.
One of them is Troy Lowe, a 4-year-old infatuated with dandelions, which he picks for his bus driver.
In December, his father, Tory Lowe, learned his son had lead poisoning, as do 8.6 percent of the children in Milwaukee, according to a 2014 report by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Even before then, Lowe had been working to inform his community on Milwaukee’s north side about the dangers of lead in the water. Lowe also uses his Facebook page to blast messages about shootings, kidnappings and carjackings to his more than 38,000 followers. He also made a music video called “Don’t Drink the Water” in which he raps about the city’s lead service lines.
“If the people most affected don’t know, it doesn’t matter,” Lowe said.
His son’s lead test result of 5.9 micrograms per deciliter is lower than many children in Milwaukee, Lowe said, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says researchers have not defined the effect lower levels might on the central nervous system and cannot rule out adverse effects at low levels. Any level above 5 micrograms is considered lead poisoning.
As part of the line replacement plan, the city published lists of every property known to have lead service lines. The Lowe family’s home was listed. He said his family does not drink from the tap, opting to buy bottled water instead.
“I know there’s thousands of kids being lead poisoned … if my son can get lead poisoning and we don’t even drink the water,” Lowe said.
Milwaukee recently began an effort to replace the lead lines, starting with $3.4 million to replace 300 that serve schools and day cares in 2017. Then, the city will spend another $3.4 million to replace 300 lines serving residences.
At that pace, it would it would take more than 233 years to replace all of Milwaukee’s residential lead lines. To replace all 70,000 lead lines in the next 50 years, the city would need replace 1,400 pipes per year, which would cost about $4.5 million each year, according to the Water Quality Task Force.
Robert Miranda, a representative for the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition, a water advocacy group, said there may be as many as 20,000 more lead service lines the city did not include in its original estimate. An April 2017 report by Milwaukee’s Water Quality Task Force backs up Miranda’s claim, noting that there is a “measure of uncertainty” because the number of lead lines installed from 1951 to 1962 “remains in limbo.”
“What we don’t know is how many more pipes we have from 1952 to 1962,” Miranda said. “They didn’t have anything that really substantiated or made that date concrete.”
The Milwaukee Department of Public Works declined an interview request from News21, but an email from department spokeswoman Sandy Rusch Walton said: “The (Milwaukee) Water Works complies with all state and federal drinking water standards, and is known for its extensive water quality monitoring program that reaches beyond basic requirements.”
Anna Smith lived with her children in a decrepit apartment where rain and snow fell through a hole in the ceiling and plastic grocery bags plugged a crack in the wall. It is one of many on the list of buildings with lead service lines.
Her 3-year-old daughter, Laila, tested at 8.8 micrograms per deciliter in October. Her other child, 1-year-old Princeton, tested with 12.1 in July.
“I wouldn’t have stayed there if I knew they had lead poisoning,” Smith said, adding that her daughter “was drinking from the faucet and stuff. I was cooking with the water.”
Short-term lead exposure can cause symptoms such as headaches, constipation and abdominal pain, according to the CDC. Long-term exposure can lead to more serious neurological issues. It often affects children more than adults.
In East Chicago, Indiana, residents have filed an emergency action petition with the EPA, asking the agency to address lead service lines affecting water. In the northwest Indiana city known historically for its lead and steel production, as many as 90 percent of the homes could be connected to lead service lines, according to the petition to the EPA. In one neighborhood, 40 percent of the homes tested by the EPA for the Drinking Water Pilot Study exceeded federal action levels, meaning enough lead was in tap water to pose a risk.
East Chicago, Indiana from News21 on Vimeo.
The Calumet neighborhood’s water problem was discovered as the EPA was investigating a separate issue – lead and arsenic in the soil left behind by the USS Lead Superfund Site – where the low-income neighborhood now sits. According to the EPA, it’s not possible for lead to leach into the pipes, but many of the homes’ water tested positive, which indicates lead service lines.
The NAACP’s Patterson said communities of color – both urban and rural – are disproportionately affected by polluting industries because they are more likely to be located near low-income neighborhoods.
“There’s an interesting mix of things. One, the pollution that comes externally from power plants or those types of things are disproportionately located in communities of color,” she said. “Then, because those types of facilities are often underregulated and monitored, you have this situation where … all of these things can end up affecting the water supply.”
Akeesha Daniels spent 13 years in the West Calumet Housing Complex, a now-abandoned housing project where the lead refinery once stood. She said the residents were never warned about the lead in the soil or the pipes.
“We were never told,” Daniels said. “Not one thing. Why would you let your most vulnerable people live there and not notify us that something was wrong?”
Calumet Lives Matter, a local advocacy group, is distributing cases of water to residents out of churches each week. Sherry Hunter, an organizer of the group, said each family gets four cases of water, some of which are donated by the nearby cities of Hammond and Gary.
The petition, signed by several community groups, says the city’s water is unsafe to drink, even with the measures in place to control corrosion of the lead pipes. State Sen. Lonnie Randolph, whose district includes East Chicago, said the state is working to determine the extent of the water contamination issue and how much it will cost to fix it.
“We are fed up with the assault of toxic contamination on our city, our neighborhoods and our people,” said the Rev. Cheryl Rivera, one of the leaders with the Community Strategy Group, another organization that pushed for the petition. “Take it to somebody else’s neighborhood. It is absolutely environmental racism. We are tired of our children and our families being poisoned intentionally.”