iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Susan Buchanan

Susan Buchanan

Posted: February 16, 2011 09:06 PM

The Crescent City draws its water from the Mississippi -- a river lined with petrochemical plants and storage tanks and full of waste from northern neighbors. Residents worry about spills in the river, and wonder if oil lapping at the coast has affected their faucet water. In a weekend last November, city dwellers endured a boiled-water advisory after a plant problem. And life on some blocks has been disrupted by water main breaks in recent years.

Local, state and federal authorities, however, say the city's tap water meets and, under some criteria, exceeds their standards because of controls on discharges in the river, constant water sampling and cleansing at plants. Last week, the purification superintendent at the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans rated the quality of the city's tap water as "excellent."

The 106-year-old Carrollton plant, outfitted with pumps, pipes and generators to pull water from the river, uses conventional purification processes, filters the water and provides 135 million gallons daily to nearly 300,000 people over hundreds of square miles. The facility's tile-roofed buildings employ 200 workers, and contain a water-quality laboratory.

Vincent Fouchi, Superintendent of Water Purification at the S&WB, said "we have the same plants, the same chemicals and procedures as before Katrina."

Across the river, the Algiers plant supplies the West Bank with 10 million gallons of drinking water each day.

"We monitor the two plants daily and monthly to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Dept. of Health & Hospitals water-quality guidelines," Fouchi said. "We're in compliance with current regulatory levels. The state's Dept. of Environmental Quality has done a good job of controlling the flow of industrial waste in the river by strict permitting of plant emissions." The U.S. Coast Guard has helped enforce those permits.

Fouchi said, in his opinion, "the S&WB provides excellent-quality, potable water to our customers."

He continued, saying "DHH tests for agricultural runoff and pesticides in the river." And while the BP spill was too far away to hurt the city's water supply, "we remain vigilant for upriver oil spills between Baton Rouge and New Orleans." The DEQ has an Early Warning Organic Compound Detection System or EWOCDS for spills. The S&WB lab analyzes river water daily and reports any contaminants to the DEQ.

Fouchi said river pumping operations are halted "when we choose to stop taking water from the river." Decisions to stop drawing are based on types and concentrations of contaminants. "We have more than one river pumping station and sometimes a spill may affect one, but not two stations," he said.

In a long-ago study, released in 2003, the Natural Resources Defense Council said the city's water quality was good, but source protection was poor.

Fouchi said "for source-water protection, EWOCDS is our best tool. The Mississippi River is leveed between Baton Rouge and the mouth of the river, so the only sources of possible contamination along this stretch are permitted industrial discharges and marine traffic accidents." He noted that other large cities on the Mississippi like St. Louis draw their water from the river, though Baton Rouge gets its supply from deep wells.

New Orleans, meanwhile, is strapped for cash for upgrading the water system. "Our infrastructure needs are still significant, and greatly outreach our current, capital-improvement funding levels," Fouchi said. "We're doing our best to repair infrastructure and equipment, as needed, within our current, budgetary constraints."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is installing a new generator at the Carrollton plant in an estimated $48 million project. Nancy Allen, Army Corps spokeswoman, said a contractor is building a structure to house the generator, which should be in place this September.

At the Algiers plant, "we switched from elemental chlorine to sodium hypochlorite about two years ago," Fouchi said. Sodium hypochlorite is a chemical compound used to disinfect water. "We're currently constructing a sodium hypochlorite storage and feed facility at Carrollton, where sodium hypochlorite will replace elemental chlorine as our disinfectant." Those change are intended to eliminate risks from chlorine gas releases.

Clyde Carlson, New Orleans-based, district engineer in the Office of Public Health of the La. Dept of Health and Hospitals, said "the city is in compliance with safe-drinking water regulations. Customers can look at the S&WB's website and read its consumer confidence report released last summer, along with updates on that report." In terms of water quality, the city's purification plants meet all state and federal, including EPA, standards.

Under EPA requirements, a consumer confidence report must be mailed to customers once a year. The S&WB plans to send out its next report this summer.

New Orleans drinking water escaped any affects from the Gulf spill. "We're 100 miles upstream from the mouth of the Mississippi River, and the BP spill occurred 50 miles out in the Gulf and in no way impacted water quality in New Orleans," Carlson said. "We're vigilant about any spills that might occur on the river upstream from us, however." A network of monitors, involving the DEQ, DHH's Office of Public Health and the U.S. Coast Guard, alerts stakeholders and water authorities about any detected spills in the river.

The last, big river spill in New Orleans occurred in July 2008 and left residents concerned about tap water. "In the 2008 incident, in which a barge overrun by a tanker spilled oil in the river, we saw a quick response from the Coast Guard, DEQ, EPA and Louisiana's Office of the Oil Spill Coordinator," Carlson said. "The S&WB Algiers' plant closely monitored or closed down water intakes from the river in an appropriate response." A water advisory was issued for Algiers, however.

As for leaky water mains and pipes in New Orleans, Carlson said "mains that have exceeded their design life are a challenge for aging infrastructure across the country. However, with enough positive pressure from electrical and steam power in the distribution system, contaminants are unlikely to get into tap water from broken mains."

Last November's boil-water advisory in New Orleans, Carlson said, "was based on an abundance of caution after a brief power outage at the Carrollton plant affected delivery of water to the distribution system, but didn't alter treatment."

Carlson continued, saying that joint, water-quality testing is performed by S&WB and the DHH. "Daily, monthly, and yearly reports are sent to us at the Safe Drinking Water Program of the Office of Public Health." Bacteriological sampling is conducted monthly at the East and West Bank distribution systems, and all EPA protocols for monitoring pollutants are followed. "Sampling is routinely done under lead and copper rules and disinfection byproduct regulations," he said. The S&WB water lab is state-certified every three years.

Carlson said "the Carrollton power plant was flooded by Katrina, but in a staged recovery, potable tap water in areas closest to the plant was back on in about three weeks." Other city neighborhoods were gradually brought back. "However, it took almost a year for the Lower Ninth Ward to have potable, tap water because of water quality and pressure issues," he said.

Fouchi at S&WB said the Carrollton plant was shut down for several days after Katrina, but it was several months before normal operations resumed because it hard to procure water-treatment chemicals. Meanwhile, the Algiers plant was not flooded by Katrina.

As for other water sources, Carlson said Baton Rouge relies on wells because of high-quality ground water in that area. New Orleans has some wells that aren't for drinking. Audubon Park, for example, contains a well for irrigation purposes. Ground water in the New Orleans area can be highly colored or highly saline, and would require different treatment than river water, Carlson said. "And there are some instances across the country where ground water withdrawals have caused subsidence" or ground sinking, he noted.

Jesse Means, geologist with the Drinking Water Protection Program at the La. Dept of Environmental Quality, said "our program focuses on public awareness, and we did surveys across the state from 2000 to 2003 to locate water wells and surface water intakes, including intakes in the Mississippi River, for every public water system." The DWPP is an outreach program to help communities protect aquifers, rivers and lakes used for drinking water. The surveys have been updated in recent program work.

"We've identified facilities and activities such as chemical plants, gas stations, and cemeteries near public wells and water intakes that have chemicals associated with them," Means said. Barge-cleaning operations, anchorages and wharves have been recorded. "We've surveyed everything from St. Francisville down to Boothville on both sides of the river, and tried to identify all plants and other activities discharging into the river," he said.

A third of Louisiana's residents get their water from surface water--lakes, rivers and bayous--while two-thirds drink water that comes from wells and is pumped out of aquifers.

Means said "the DEQ looks at drinking water use and what the quality of the river water needs to be, and has a strict, discharge-permitting system. Plants are allowed to discharge a specified amount of treated waste water into the Mississippi River under their permits."

He continued "if plants treat their water and follow what's authorized in their permits, they are not unduly polluting the water supply. The DEQ has routinely worked to locate unpermitted discharges for years in the New Orleans area and elsewhere." The U.S. Coast Guard permits and inspects sewage-treatment systems for vessels in navigable waterways.

Means said "the DWPP tries to get as many people and businesses involved in pollution prevention as possible. We've set up volunteer committees--made up of citizens, officials, water-system operators, business owners and anyone that's interested in participating--to visit businesses near water-supply intakes and wells, and we try to educate them on best management practices to prevent pollution."

Meanwhile, in an issue that has resurfaced, Carlson said "OPH is aware of the recent, EPA draft guidance on perchlorate, and will continue to work with EPA on related rules and regulations in the future." In early February, the EPA said it will regulate perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, along with sixteen other volatile organic compounds that can cause cancer.

Carlson also said "the Office of Public Health does not advocate point-of-use treatment devices for water, particularly when water meets regulations. However, if a resident chooses to use a filter, they should use an NSF-certified device." NSF International, an independent, public-health group, tests and certifies products.

Carlson advised "run tap water until the temperature changes, especially in older buildings in the morning, to flush out plumbing contaminants and metals from old pipes. And always use water from the cold tap for consumption." Also, make sure prescription drugs are not disposed of in sinks, toilets, drains or through any conduit to the watershed, he said.

This article was published in the Feb. 14, 2011 edition of "The Louisiana Weekly."