Clean Water for St. Joseph, LA: A Victory in the Battle Against Infrastructure Inequality

Yesterday, the town of St. Joseph Louisiana—suffering from years without clean water or civilization as the rest of us know it, got an early Christmas present. The Governor of LA declared a state of water emergency. This follows in the footsteps of Flint and a USA Today series that exposed chronic problems associated with water infrastructure-inequality in rural American.

This small town with a per capita income of $9000, a declining population and a mayor under investigation for fiscal wrongdoing, has suffered through years of black or orange water, constant boil water alerts, school shutdowns for lack of clean water, multiple utility violations for failures to monitor and alert the public—and continued assurances that the water was “safe” (Figure 1). Residents have been fighting for years, but in the end, it took dogged persistence by locals and their advocates, media attention, and a little bit of independent water testing to bring clean water to these long-ignored residents.

Figure 1. Water tower in St. Joseph (Source: Wilma Subra). A typical bathtub in St. Joseph (Source: Porscha Fayard)

The final battle started in early 2016, when residents hopes for a White House petition to help obtain clean water, fell short because this town of fewer than 1200 people couldn’t muster the 100,000 required signatures. In March and April of 2016, our colleague Dr. Adrienne Katner of LSU Health Sciences Center sent water sampling kits to a few residents that were supplied by Dr. Katner found elevated levels of lead as high as 42 ppb. We have since presented on St. Joe’s water woes at national conferences (view or download powerpoint below).

Download (PDF, 2.77MB)

Thus empowered with information that there was a problem, citizens started to get some traction. Things started to really move when Janie Jones (President, Council on Policy & Social Impact) got engaged.  Janie coordinated a sampling event with Adrienne and Flintwaterstudy on September 29, 2016, looking for lead and Legionella.


Figure 2. Ms. Thelma Bradford shows Flintwaterstudy the water from her kitchen faucet. (Photo: William Rhoads and Joyce Zhu)

At that point, the state started investigating further, and they also found elevated lead and copper. Advocate pressure added fuel to the fire, and on Dec 16, 2016, Governor John Bel Edwards signed the declaration, which stated:

“The Town of St. Joseph has experienced water problems for years due to the poorly maintained and deteriorating water distribution system. Frequent breaks in the water distribution system provide a potential health risk because of the drop in water pressure. Out of an abundance of caution, the Louisiana Department of Health recommends that residents use an alternative source of water for personal consumption, including making ice, brushing teeth or using it for food preparation and rinsing of foods.”

The residents have been promised potable water until long-term solutions can be found. Congrats to everyone who is helping residents of St. Joe to get clean water. Special thanks to Janie Jones (President, Council on Policy & Social Impact) who told Flintwaterstudy:

 “This is just the beginning for St. Joe residents—the hard work is all ahead of us. Let’s remember to keep people at the forefront.” 

Legendary activist and MacArthur Fellow Wilma Subra has also been engaged in this battle.

Below is a short Flintwaterstudy video interview of our colleague Dr. Katner (LSU), who risked her career and “crossed the imaginary line” to help expose, and correct, this environmental injustice in St. Joe.


Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards

More exemplary comments on ES&T rebuttal from Environmental Engineering Colleagues

Dear Marc,

We wanted to pass along a quick note to express our strong support for the views expressed in your rebuttal to the editorial “Crossing the Imaginary Line” by David Sedlak in ES&T. We admire the tremendously difficult, courageous, and important work that you and your research team have done in Washington DC and are continuing to do in Flint, Michigan. Your work has uncovered severe public health crises in our country, given underserved communities a voice, and contributed to improving drinking water quality. Thank you for your efforts to uphold the first canon of civil engineering.

We view the original ES&T editorial and your rebuttal as a teachable moment for engineering students and for academia. We all must understand our professional responsibilities, including our ethical obligation to speak out when the science and data demand it.

You serve as an excellent example to us all. Please keep up the good work.

Yours truly,

Joe DeCarolis, Detlef Knappe, Morton Barlaz, Emily Berglund, Doug Call, Daniel Obenour, James Levis, Francis de los Reyes, Andy Grieshop, Joel Ducoste, Fernando Garcia Menendez, Tarek Aziz

CDC and MDHHS Investigation into the Shigella Outbreak in Genesee and Saginaw Counties

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and local health officials intimated healthcare providers and community members about their investigation into the Shigella outbreak in Genesee and Saginaw counties on November 17th 2016. We welcome and support the results of this investigation.

The letter to community members:

Download (PDF, 525KB)

The letter to healthcare providers:

Download (PDF, 463KB)

Up to date results of this investigation can be found on the MDHHS Website.