Safe water, answers pending

Leslie D. Rose @DvilleNewsie
Tamiko Francis Garrison holds a silent protest near People's Water Service in Donaldsonville.

On Friday, March 25, a lone protestor - a recent kidney transplant recipient - sat near the parking lot of People's Water Service, with a sign and a bag of pills she said she usually takes with tap water. While she may have been alone in physical protest, many residents have taken to other mediums to ask why People's Water Service did not notify its 10,000 customers of the possible unsafe levels of chlorine dioxide.

Testing shows that the water serviced by the company has been harboring unsafe levels since September 2015. Louisiana Dept. of Health and Hospitals (DHH) notified Mayor Leroy Sullivan and his council on Tuesday, March 22, during a council meeting. Following the meeting, the city put out areverse 911 call, as well as took to the streets to knock on residents' doors in efforts to ensure all citizens were notified of the Do Not Drink order DHH had put in place. The initial order was to expectant mothers and children, but on March 23, all residents serviced by People's Water Service were told not to drink, or cook, with the water.

Chlorine dioxide is a chemical compound thatis a potent and useful oxidizing agent used in water treatment and in bleaching, however the EPA requires a certain level of usage. People's Water Service exceeded that level by 6.5 times in the months of September through March, according to federal drinking water standards. DHH released a statement saying that the directive follows findings of chlorine dioxide in the treatment system at levels four to five times the EPA standard for this chemical.

Louisiana State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry, MD said he took the Do Not Drink order step out of an abundance of caution, as the records provided by the water system are questionable, and due to concerns about sampling and the testing technology used by the water system.

"Today, we were provided with information that is both alarming and confusing," Guidry said. "We are concerned that there appears to be elevated levels of chlorine dioxide leaving the plant. But, we also have concerns about the testing procedures used by the water system and the overall training of the operators as well as questions about the technology used to conduct the sampling."

In December 1998, EPA set the enforceable drinking water standard for chlorine dioxide at 0.8 milligrams per liter to reduce the risk of adverse health effects. During an onsite inspection by LDHH on March 21, the chlorine dioxide sample records were reviewed. Daily chlorine dioxide sample records were found to have exceeded the limit for the months of September, October, November and December 2015 and January and March 2016. Additionally, Peoples Water Company failed to report the exceedance and collect the three additional chlorine dioxide samples in the distribution system on the day following the exceedance.

A switch over to chlorine and ammonia was advised and has successfully occurred. Officials with DHH took five samples from separate parts of the affected water system, and each indicated that the water was no longer dangerous to consume. Mayor Sullivan was notified at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 26, and the Do Not Drink order was lifted.

During the Do Not Drink order, city officials, along with Parish Prison trustees facilitated water pick-ups daily from March 22 until March 25. Residents serviced by People's Water were able to receive two cases of bottled water per car. The service cost the state more than $30,000. The first night's water distribution came courtesy of Todd Landry at American Spring Water Company, as well as the second day's 25 pallet supply.

"He bailed us out," said Mayor Leroy Sullivan. "If we wouldn't have been able to get that water, it would have really been very detrimental to the city of Donaldsonville. We distributed 13 to 15 pallets of water that night."

While residents may now safely consume the water, answers as to why they weren't notified are pending, and elected officials are not sitting idle in concern.

Parish Councilman Travis Turner has filed a lawsuit over the water issues, and is seeking a class-action status for People's Water Service customers. Turner claims the company was hiding its results to aid its pending sale to parish government.

Sullivan admits that he is angered by the lack of accountability by People's Water Service company, but he has said he will wait for answers before commenting in detail.

"It's a little disheartening when you hear what the samples and the tests have revealed, but we want to wait and see the final results before I really comment on that," Sullivan said. "When you talk about drinking water and people's health, we all have to be upfront and honest no matter what the situation and circumstances are."

DHH said it will continue to monitor the water.

Brandie Richardson contributed to this report.