Contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers work on raising a sill in the Mississippi River near Alliance to reduce the flow of saltwater upriver. (USACE photo)
BURAS — After saltwater intrusion in the Mississippi River rendered tap water in Plaquemines Parish undrinkable for months, parish residents remain wary of the water quality, even though officials insist the water is now safe to drink.
Plaquemines Parish lifted the last of a months long series of water advisories two weeks ago. Agencies have been working to treat the area’s drinking water with a combination of reverse osmosis and barging fresh water from upriver in recent weeks.
“It is indeed a moment of relief,” local officials said in an Oct. 18 press release announcing that testing showed salt at manageable levels in the parish’s water systems.
The influx of salty water is the result of a months-long drought across the Mississippi River basin that has lowered the river’s levels downstream in Louisiana. The saltwater intrusion event has also brought to light issues with the region’s outdated water system infrastructure and the risk of heavy metals exposure for residents.
But some Plaquemines residents say they are still worried about the safety and salinity of their drinking water, after ongoing reports of health issues including rashes, hair loss and bladder infections.
Plaquemines Parish Councilmember Mark Cognevich told Verite News that his constituents are still complaining about salty water coming out of their taps and that citizen-administered tests are showing high levels of salt.
“They want clean drinking water,” Cognevich said.
Cognevich argued that the parish should continue to deliver water to residents until all complaints are resolved. For now, his constituents will have to buy their own water or use what’s coming out of the tap, he said.
In the meantime, some nonprofits are still trucking in water to Plaquemines Parish residents. Louisiana Just Recovery Network, Imagine Waterworks and CORE New Orleans are collaborating to bring water to Buras, Sulphur and Grand Bayou. Another water distribution event in Buras is scheduled for Thursday (Nov. 2) at Trinity Christian Community Church.
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Buras residents say their water safety concerns go beyond salt levels.
“We are seeking a permanent solution to this water problem,” wrote Buras resident Catherine Vodipier in a statement she handed out at a recent community meeting.
Meanwhile, water quality experts who reviewed recent state water test results for the parish say extra salt means residents could be exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals, as The Guardian recently reported.
Shannta Carter, communications director for Plaquemines Parish government, told Verite News that officials are closely monitoring for contaminants, conceding that measurements in Port Sulphur have shown iron from pipes leaching into the water and high levels of disinfection byproducts.
A spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health said the agency would notify the public in the case of any water quality violations in the parish.
One such notice, issued in August for the Port Sulphur Water District, notes that a chemical byproduct of the water disinfection process was found in elevated levels in samples collected during the saltwater intrusion event. The notice said that state and federal officials “do not consider this violation to have any serious adverse health effects on human health as a result of short-term exposure,” though long-term exposure “has the potential to have serious adverse effects on human health.”
The disinfection process for municipal water systems creates two byproducts: haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes, both of which have been linked to several forms of cancer, along with liver and nervous system damage.
Disinfecting water and managing these resulting byproducts is a delicate balance, said Marc Edwards, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech best known for his research on the Flint, Michigan water crisis.
“Whenever water changes, it could change things for the better or it could change things for the worse,” Edwards said. “There’s literally 100 things you have to monitor for.”
Edwards reviewed a 2022 water quality report for Belle Chasse for Verite News.
“They are on the edge with serious problems but not beyond the edge,” Edwards said of Plaquemines Parish’s management of disinfecting drinking water while keeping byproduct levels down. “Is it a cause for panic or distrust? I don’t see that yet.”
Adrienne Katner, a professor of environmental health at LSU, said she remains troubled by the levels of these contaminants documented in Plaquemines Parish water systems over the last three years, before this summer’s saltwater intrusion. Katner looked at 2020, 2021 and 2022 annual water reports for Belle Chasse, Point à la Hache and Port Sulphur.
“That is a huge concern to me,” Katner said. “There’s an unresolved problem with this system which the salt will only aggravate.”
However, issues of public trust continue in Plaquemines and further upriver. The Army Corp of Engineers has pushed back its estimate of when the salt water wedge may reach Orleans Parish, with a recent forecast showing that it is unlikely to have an impact on drinking water safety. But residents in the Lower 9th Ward have still expressed confusion over what this means in the following months.
At a community meeting last week, the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development gathered with city of New Orleans emergency officials and the National Weather Service to address residents’ anxiety and answer questions.
“There was no doubt,” said Arthur Johnson, executive director for the center. “The community does have a concern for trust in public officials.”
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