Sulphur’s brown water catches attention of a national environmental activist

Erin Brockovich says Louisiana city’s water ‘looks like another Flint’

By: - June 2, 2021 1:18 pm

Financial help is on the way for Louisiana drinking water and sewer systems with pressing needs. (Stock photo of low quality tap water from Shutterstock)

Like more than 300 water systems across the state, the system that provides water for Sulphur resident Cindy Robertson contains more iron than what’s recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. The elevated level of iron makes the water coming out of Roberton’s tap the color of iced tea. 

“I had white towels when I moved here, and now I have tan towels,” she said. “I’ve got brown stains all over my water filter. I have to scrub my sink to get the brown stains out. It’s just. It’s disgusting.”

The state of Sulphur’s water grabbed the attention of environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who posted photos of the brown water on her Facebook page. “Looks like another Flint on the horizon,” she wrote.

Because the mineral is not considered to be a health risk, the Louisiana Department of Health doesn’t regulate iron levels or mandate that drinking water be tested for it. While the Environmental Protection Agency has a recommended upper limit for iron of 0.3 mg/L, the guideline is non-enforceable. At levels of iron above 0.3 mg/L, the mineral can be tasted and it can stain laundry.  For years now experts have pointed out that the presence of iron could also be a symptom of a bigger problem.

A screenshot of a Facebook post from Erin Brockovich.

The presence of iron in drinking water is not a health concern itself. Iron is naturally occuring in plants, animals and groundwater. However, elevated levels of iron could be an indicator of corrosive water, which can cause metals from the water distribution pipes, including lead, to leach into treated water, said Dr. Adrienne Katner, an assistant professor at LSU’s Health Sciences Center New Orleans. Drinking water systems are typically tested for lead every three years. 

Elevated levels of iron can also neutralize disinfectants, encouraging bacteria like legionella to grow, Katner said. Legionella causes Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially fatal form of pneumonia. “It’s hard to say what the state should or shouldn’t be doing,” she said.

Rep. Matthew Willard (D-New Orleans) hoped to address this issue at the Louisiana Legislature this session with House Bill 481. But he voluntarily deferred the bill in the House Committee on Health and Welfare last month in response to concerns about the cost of water testing. “There was too much opposition, but I hope in the near future we can move forward with this type of legislation in Louisiana,” Willard in an email message last month.

The bill would have mandated iron testing in drinking water systems in single-family homes that contain copper pipes with lead solder installed after 1982, contain lead pipes or have a lead service line. Willard said he hoped federal infrastructure funds could help pay for the testing.

But rural water systems, with fewer customers to pay for a way to remove iron from the water, have a harder time dealing with this issue. These systems also have more frequent water disruptions, as detailed in an analysis of boil water notices by the Illuminator and WWNO/WRKF. “Some states do enforce those secondary contaminants,” Katner said. “I think there’s a desire to move toward that so they don’t have to drink this dirty looking water.”

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Sara Sneath
Sara Sneath

Sara Sneath is an environmental journalist who lives in New Orleans with her dog and three bikes.