Water is held in an aerating pond at the Sewerage & Water Board plant in New Orleans. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
NEW ORLEANS — Records the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans sent to the state health department show plant worker Louis Pierre Jr. traveled to five locations Feb. 17 in neighborhoods on the city’s west bank to collect and analyze drinking water samples. The samples, required under state law, measure the amount of chlorine in the water to ensure it’s adequately disinfected to prevent growth of harmful bacteria.
GPS data from Pierre’s work vehicle reveal he only made one of the five stops, in the 2600 block of Donner Street. After that stop, Pierre went to two other locations that were not listed on the state-submitted records — or even in the same neighborhood as the other four addresses.
The Louisiana Illuminator and WVUE-TV Fox 8 reviewed several months of GPS data and records the Sewerage and Water Board submitted to the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH). They reveal the apparent fabrication of water testing data by Pierre and other staffers — and perhaps their supervisors — does not appear to be out of the ordinary.
Instead, it’s part of a pattern of falsification among at least five employees, one that leaves residents and regulators to question whether any of the thousands of bits of water quality data submitted to the state every year — data at the foundation of verifying the S&WB’s compliance with decades-old federal water regulations — is true.
More importantly, if they are untrue, it brings into question whether the drinking water in the city has been — and is — safe.
If it's true that they were not sampling the water for microbial contaminants, that's a very serious crime. Potentially, people could be endangered by this and even sickened or die.
– Marc Edwards, drinking water system expect, Virginia Tech University
The Sewerage and Water Board has confirmed Pierre was pulled from any duty involving public health after it was made aware of the Illuminator and Fox 8’s findings. A S&WB spokesperson refused to say whether Pierre was still with the utility, citing human resources and Civil Service restrictions. Two other employees whose testing reports didn’t mesh with GPS data are no longer with the Sewerage and Water Board, according to the agency.
Additional records submitted to the state show S&WB employee Lakiethia Ross collected water samples from a dozen sites in New Orleans East on the morning of March 22, reading the chlorine level at each stop and then collecting a second sample to be analyzed at the S&WB lab for bacteria contamination. The data show Ross found adequate amounts of chlorine at each site, and the lab found no presence of contamination.
GPS records for Ross’ vehicle tell a different story. There is no record of her stopping at four stops for which the utility submitted data. That data included not only the chlorine and bacteria test results, but also Ross’ name and the exact time the samples were supposedly taken, per federal regulations. Those figures would also seem to have been made up.
On Dec. 5, Ross’ records say she was testing a home on Bartholomew Street in the Bywater neighborhood at 8:10 a.m., when her GPS readings placed her nearly 3 miles away in the Warehouse District and in the Lower Garden District two minutes later. Positioning data never shows her anywhere on Bartholomew Street that day. It was the first of two stops she would skip that morning. A S&WB spokesperson confirmed the Dec. 5 skipped stops, as well as nine others by Ross the same month.
Shelton Pollet has lived at the address in question on Bartholomew Street for 22 years. Three years ago, he signed up voluntarily with the Sewerage and Water Board to have his water tested and said he can tell when they test in front of his house because it leaves a wet spot on the sidewalk. The faucet can only be turned on with a special S&WB key, which Pollet found left behind in a nearby potted plant and showed to reporters.
Pollet, 72, said he was born under the astrological sign Virgo, known for their attention to detail, and “can spot a flea on an elephant.” In the three years he’s been on the water sampling route, Pollet said he’s seen wet pavement near his front steps, indicating a sampler visited, “at least three times.” That’s nowhere near the frequency indicated by reports the Sewerage and Water Board filed with the state health department, which claim Pollet’s house was sampled seven times each year from 2019 to 2022, with at least another four visits this year.
“I’m not sure what I’m getting, and that’s one of the reasons I go out and buy bottled water just for that reason,” Pollet said. “And now that you told me it’s not being checked, and I basically went out of my way… for this. You’re telling me stuff that doesn’t surprise me, but I’m disappointed and they need to be held accountable.”
Skipped stops across entire city
The Illuminator obtained five years of data documenting near-daily water testing to comply with two federal rules governing bacteriological contamination and disinfection. Also obtained were GPS records for at least eight sampling personnel between December 2022 and June 2023. Cross referencing the data resulted in an examination of over 1,900 testing stops.
Major discrepancies were found between the two datasets.
In 150 cases, about 8%, or about every one in 12 testing stops — spread among at least five of the 8 samplers examined — the discrepancies were severe enough to believe they never visited the sites submitted to the state. The skipped stops were spread across the entire city and were found in every month examined. Extrapolated through the entire five years of testing data, the December 2022-June 2023 skip rate would result in more than 1,300 stops missed.
The skipped addresses represent a substantial swath of the entire sampling program during the seven months studied. Out of 388 addresses listed as sampled in the state-submitted data, 99 — or fully one quarter — were found to be skipped at least once. Thirty-four of those were skipped at least twice.
In most cases, like those of Pierre and Ross, sampling personnel appear to have skipped the locations entirely. In other cases, GPS records indicate sampling stops at regular testing locations far from what was provided to the state. One address — the Briarwood S&WB sewer lift station at 13071 Morrison Road — was skipped all four times it was claimed to have been sampled.
Instead, the Shorewood sewer lift station at 14441 Morrison — over half a mile away — was visited by staffers Ross in December and February, Janice Walters in April, and an unknown staffer in May. Ross skipped three other stops entirely on the December day she skipped the Briarwood station, chopping them off the end of her route.
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Sampling regulations specify that a stop may not be visited more than once a month, but the “substitute” visits to the Shorewood station mean it was actually sampled twice in each of those months, but Briarwood station and its surrounding neighborhood was left unexamined.
For some tests that required the staffer to stop at the very last location on a dead end street and obtain a sample from the fire hydrant there — to ensure chlorine had spread through all points in the water distribution network — they appear to have stopped at hydrants further away from the end of the street. The Illuminator found over two dozen instances of skipped stops like this, including one visit three-quarters of a mile short of the location told to the state.
For all 150 such skipped testing stops, false data on chlorine levels was submitted to the state. In half the cases, testing for the presence or absence of bacteria called coliform — which could indicate possible fecal contamination — was also submitted to the state. But the coliform testing was performed on samples tagged with the skipped addresses, making the coliform results themselves false. False sample collection times and sampler names were also submitted.
It’s impossible to know exactly where the water used in the coliform testing for the skipped locations, performed at the S&WB lab on samples collected in the field, was obtained. As for the chlorine data, generated by the samplers themselves at the time of collection, its source is either testing on water from elsewhere, or perhaps just made up entirely. Each month’s falsifications gathered together represents a potential violation of federal and state law.
Federal and state regulations require a minimum number of individual bacteriological samples to be collected each month by public water systems. They also require chlorine samples to be taken and analyzed at the same time as the coliform samples. Since each skipped location represents likely falsified data, the total number of samples taken each month falls below the regulatory requirement, another potential violation of federal law.
The real world consequences of skipping testing locations and then falsifying the data for those locations are obvious. Those addresses and the neighborhoods around them were deprived of their right under the law to regular monitoring for chlorine levels and bacteriological contamination, which are performed to safeguard public health. The Illuminator’s analysis shows the average time between sampling stops that were subject to skips nearly doubled from 39 days to 73 days. In one case, a location that would have had 57 days between samples instead had to wait more than five months.
Practically, it means the Sewerage and Water Board, state and federal regulators, and the public have a less clear picture of the safety of New Orleans’ drinking water, a precarious condition which could backfire if contamination were found at a skipped address. In that case, the follow-up testing required under federal regulations would be done on the wrong location, putting the neighborhood around the skipped address in serious risk for illness.
Madeleine Long is among New Orleans residents looking for clarity. Doorbell security camera video from her Lakeview home shared with the Illuminator and Fox 8 shows a marked Sewerage and Water Board vehicle pulling up in front of her home at 7:46 a.m. Sept. 21. Records filed with the state show an S&WB employee took water samples at Long’s address at nearly the same time. But Long’s security video shows something different — no one ever exits the vehicle before it departs four minutes later.
“It makes me very uneasy, you know,” Long said after seeing the GPS and state health data analysis. “I knew the water always kind of tastes a little off or something, so I did get a filter. But that makes me nervous for brushing my teeth, taking showers. I just didn’t think it would be something that could be dangerous or anything.”
‘That’s a very serious crime’
Citywide sampling and testing programs, governed under federal and state regulations and overseen by the state health department, determine whether drinking water in New Orleans is safe. Penalties for violations can be serious, ranging from suspension of certifications and fines all the way up to jail time. But the system relies on an enormous amount of trust: water agencies collect their own samples.
Coliform bacteria does not cause illness itself, but its presence typically indicates there are other harmful pathogens in the water system. Tainted water could lead to illness if consumed and is potentially lethal for the immune-compromised. But contamination can be easily prevented with simple and inexpensive testing for coliform.
The Illuminator and Fox 8 shared findings about New Orleans’ water quality testing with Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech University and one of the country’s foremost experts on contamination of public drinking water. He led efforts to expose contamination in the water supplies of Flint, Michigan, and Washington, D.C., among other locations.
Edwards was unflinching when shown the frequency of skipped testing.
“Well, if it’s true that they were not sampling the water for microbial contaminants, that’s a very serious crime, ” he said. “Potentially, people could be endangered by this and even sickened or die.”
“Why bother to pay these people to tell us the water is safe, when in fact, that might not be?” Edwards said of the sampling personnel who appear to have regularly skipped dozens of stops and falsified data submitted to the state.
Steve Nelson, the Sewerage and Water Board’s deputy general superintendent of engineering and services, has supervisory responsibility over water treatment. He was asked about the mismatches between GPS records and records submitted to the state. He immediately admitted the only conclusion was the stops were skipped and the data falsified.
“I don’t think there’s really any other logical explanation,” Nelson said,
Nelson said his first reaction to the findings had been “concern.”
“We want to be certain that especially in matters related to public health and safety, that we are above reproach,” he said.
When asked if he would hand over any findings to law enforcement — as has been done in prior data falsification cases — Nelson demurred.
“If necessary, we are going to be in discussions with LDH today [Oct. 31] about the findings, and we will take the appropriate action, as recommended by LDH,” he said.
An LDH spokesperson confirmed to the Illuminator that Chad Lavoie, S&WB’s water purification superintendent with direct responsibility over testing and sampling who has been with the utility since 1993, reached out Oct. 31 to state officials.
“On Oct. 31, the Louisiana Department of Health was made aware of water sampling and testing irregularities at the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans,” LDH press secretary Kevin Litten said in a statement. “The public relies on water utilities and regulatory agencies for transparent and accurate information on the quality of their drinking water and LDH takes drinking water quality very seriously.
“As a result of the information provided to LDH on Oct. 31, the LDH Drinking Water Program has opened an investigation. The results of this investigation will guide regulatory action. It is important to note that LDH has not received any information to suggest the drinking water in New Orleans is not safe to drink.”
In response to emailed questions, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson Joe Robledo acknowledged EPA had been in contact with the Louisiana Department of Health about the S&WB irregularities. The EPA is the federal agency responsible for enforcing safe drinking water laws and regulations.
“Evidence of falsification of data is a serious offense,” Robledo said. “If evidence of data falsification is discovered, EPA could pursue appropriate civil and/or criminal enforcement.”
Half of collection times don’t match GPS records
While the 150 “skip” mismatches are significant and possibly criminal, they actually represent just a small slice of what appears to be systemic flaws in the Sewerage and Water Board’s quality testing collection and analysis means and methods.
State regulations require each chlorine and bacteriological sample reported to the state to include the time of sample’s collection. For the coliform bacteria tests, there is a 30-hour limit on how long samples can be stored, so the collection time must be known to ensure compliance. Even using the most generous data interpretation, the Illuminator found at least 50% of the samples across the seven month period studied were not actually collected at the times reported to the state.
The divergence in collection times ranges from a few minutes up to an hour. While none of the differences apparently placed the samples in danger of being out of range for storage times, the apparent willingness of S&WB personnel to report false collection times half the time raises serious questions about the integrity of the water testing data across all categories.
Problems with the S&WB’s recording of sample collection times have been visible in plain sight to the public and regulators for many years.
The Louisiana Department of Health makes a great deal of sampling data available on its “Drinking Water Watch” website. Every sample recorded for federally required coliform testing dating back to August 2018 is available for each water system in the state. By matching sample identification numbers, dates and collection times, the Illuminator confirmed the data the Sewerage and Water Board provided for this investigation is indeed the same data on the health department website.
The coliform testing data for New Orleans includes a particularly implausible coincidence: the collection time of every sample — more than 13,000 of them — ends in either five or zero. For example, times listed are 1:00, 2:05, 3:20, 4:45. Other water utilities’ collection times end in various numbers with no such pattern, suggesting the Sewerage and Water Board’s times aren’t real world data. In a review of state data from other parishes, the only other area water system to exhibit the same collection time pattern is Jefferson Parish.
Punishments begin at S&WB and could intensify
Nelson was asked whether he believed the problems uncovered were isolated or a systemic problem at the Sewerage and Water Board. He said he believed the problem was “isolated to a few employees.” Three employees with skipped stops on their GPS records who had been cited as examples — Ross, Pierre, and Percy Randall — are no longer involved with water testing, Nelson said.
Randall and Ross previously left the agency, and Pierre has been pulled off testing duty as a result of this investigation’s findings. Randall resigned in August, New Orleans Civil Service records show.
Ross was suspended and then fired, not for data falsification but for unrelated violations of S&WB policies resulting from her involvement in an April accident while driving a work vehicle. S&WB records also show her blood alcohol concentration, tested after the accident, exceeded the agency’s 0.02% limit for vehicle drivers. Ross measured 0.038% and then 0.036% on a confirmation test.
Contacted by reporters, Ross said she was fired because a co-worker who was supposed to fill in for her backed out at the last minute. Ross, who said she had gone out the night before, ended up working that day when she crashed her work vehicle. She admitted failing a sobriety test.
While answers to some questions about the S&WB’s practices might have to come from an official investigation, potential punishments for the apparent misdeeds are already well documented. The federal and state governments take dim views of falsifying drinking water testing, with sentences ranging from withdrawals of certification all the way up to prison time.
In 2015, two St. John the Baptist Parish water system employees were convicted of falsifying chlorine testing data from just two locations. As part of a plea bargain, they were sentenced to one year in prison, which a judge suspended, six months of probation, a fine and community service. The state attorney general’s office used GPS data from their parish vehicles to find they had been nowhere near the two sites when they had claimed to be collecting chlorine concentration data in August 2014. That was the same month a deadly brain-eating amoeba had been found in the St. John water supply.
In 2016, a Chicago-area water official was sentenced to three months in prison, a year of supervised release and a $5,000 fine in federal court after being found guilty of falsifying the collection of dozens of coliform samples. Philip Kraus, a certified water operator in the suburb of Dolton, was found to have skipped testing sites throughout the water system’s service area, instead collecting water from just a few sites. He was accused of engaging in the scheme from 2008 to 2013.
Also in 2016, a New Jersey water system operator was sentenced to concurrent three-year prison sentences for submitting false coliform testing data to cover up multiple positive coliform detections in two local water systems. Officials could not say whether the water was safe during the 33 months Edward O’Rourke was committing his crimes.
In 2021, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality revoked the certification for a water testing lab in Leominster, effectively shutting it down after it was found to have reported false results for a variety of tests conducted on behalf of private well owners. The state ran a sting operation, sending spiked and sterile samples to the lab, which reported the presence of organisms and chemicals that could not have been in the samples.
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Greg LaRose with the Louisiana Illuminator and Dannah Sauer and Lee Zurik with WVUE-TV Fox 8 contributed to this report.
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