GARRETT BOYTE: It's just a given fact that at some point during the week, you're going to have brown or yellow water.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
That's Garrett Boyte. He doesn't live in Flint, Mich., but St. Joseph, La. He says there have been problems with the water there for a decade, but it's only in the past few weeks that the news industry's paid any attention.
BOYTE: What's happening here is a St. Joseph got the attention it's gotten because Flint has made water a public issue. And what I try to tell people is that this isn't just happening in St. Joseph or in Flint. It's happening across Louisiana. It's happening in Kentucky, in Tennessee, in Mississippi and in areas of poor and disenfranchised communities across the country.
SIMON: The cause of the dark water in St. Joseph seems to be a broken pipe in the aging system. And while local officials have said it's not dangerous, the break in the pipe could be a warning. Dr. Jimmy Guidry is Louisiana's state health officer, and he joins us on the line.
Thanks very much for being with us Dr. Guidry.
JIMMY GUIDRY: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: So what is the concern about the brown water?
GUIDRY: Most of their issues seem to be around pipes that are 90 years old and are constantly being repaired and trying to be maintained. So they have been working diligently to come up with a plan to replace their pipe. And like most small water systems, when you don't have many customers, it's very expensive and it's not affordable. But they have to do so because right now the risk of worse things than color, certainly bacteria getting and contaminating their water is much more of concern.
SIMON: When you say small number of customers, St. Joseph is a town of about 1,200 people that's in northern Louisiana, along the border with Mississippi. Is that just too small of a tax base to make water repairs?
GUIDRY: It certainly has been a problem, not just in Louisiana, among other states, where you have small communities that are having to meet these requirements - more and more mandates from EPA on water standards to make sure that people don't get sick. So when you talk about addressing replacement of a system, it is cost-prohibitive for that small community to address all those needs. And we see it in multiple small communities around the state, but also around the country.
SIMON: Would you drink a glass of tap water from St. Joseph?
GUIDRY: I actually, you know, agree with them that I wouldn't drink it. It's not that I don't think it's safe from the standpoint that we measure the bacteria. We measure all the chemicals that make it safe. But when you look at it, it looks like sludge. It doesn't look like something you want to put in your body.
SIMON: How long should it take to give the people of St. Joseph clean-looking water?
GUIDRY: It could take years when you get to this point. You know, it's the kind of thing which, if you don't maintain it along the way, you're going to have to take care of it when it gets in trouble. And now it's in serious trouble, and it's going to be very costly to take care of those issues.
SIMON: When you say it could take years to replace the aging water system of a town of 1,200 in Louisiana, I kind of wonder how people, for example, who might be listening in Pittsburgh might feel.
GUIDRY: Well, if you have enough customers, you tend to replace infrastructure over time because you have a funding source. But when you don't have a funding source, you're looking for a low-interest loan if you can afford it, or you're looking for a grant, which there aren't many of those around. So literally, it's very difficult for them to meet the standards that are required and then give them the quality of water that they want. So a small committee really struggles on how to address all of these issues.
SIMON: Dr. Jimmy Guidry is Louisiana's state health officer. He joined us from Baton Rouge.
Thanks so much.
GUIDRY: Thank you.
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