Back to drawing board for tap water problems

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 7, 2009



LAPLACE – The state Department of Health and Hospitals has once again told St. John Parish officials that they must take immediate steps to clean up the East Bank water system and eliminate high levels of contaminants.

This week state health officials handed down an administrative order, which details 34 violations of state laws at the St. John District 1 Consolidated Waterworks. While District 1 includes the entire east bank, most of the violations pertain to the Ruddock water well, which pumps water to residences and businesses in LaPlace.

Violations detailed in the order range from unsatisfactory levels of trihalomethanes in the water, to a breakdown in regular testing of the water, to specifications regarding the parish’s water plant operators. The order lays out a specific timeline for correcting the infractions. If the conditions do not improve, the parish could face a $3,000 fine for each day of noncompliance.

This is the second time in five years that St. John has been hit with a mandate to clean up the parish’s tap water. A similar administrative order was handed down in 2003. St. John Public Information Officer Buddy Boe said the current order, which was delivered Tuesday, details problems separate from the 2003 order. Parish President Bill Hubbard said the parish has already corrected half of the violations in the order.

“It comes down to a series of bad decisions that stretch back for years,” Hubbard said. “It is finally all catching up to us. We will have a good water system and sewer system.”

The parish has battled for years to decrease and eliminate traces of trihalomethanes from the tap water supply coming from the Ruddock well. Trihalomethanes are described by DHH as a byproduct of chlorine and organic bacteria in the water. Boe said the parish must treat raw tap water with chlorine to get rid of the natural brown coloring of the water.

While parish officials stress that the water is safe to consume, health experts say that long-term exposure to trihalomethanes can be dangerous. The chemical has been known to form carcinogens, a cancer-forming agent.

The administrative order also includes citations for failure to regularly test water and take samples. DHH officials said the parish was not taking the mandatory 50 samples per month, and in a spot check of sampling taps throughout the parish, state officials found inoperable taps where samples were allegedly taken.

“It was impossible to test from these taps,” Boe said. “A new employee was doing the testing, and disciplinary action has been taken in response to the breakdown.”

At a St. John Council meeting last week Hubbard moved to remove Ralph Bean as director of public utilities for the parish, citing that Bean was in control when DHH began looking into the issues detailed in the order.

In an effort to rectify some of the issues from the 2003 DHH order, the parish purchased a $3.3 million filtration system for the Ruddock water plant that would get rid of contaminates without the need for excessive chlorine treatment. A series of issues delayed complete installation of the system until late last year.

The system finally went online in January 2009, but Boe said it has never been able to keep up with demands. The filter system broke down last weekend and has not been turned back on. Hubbard said the company that installed the filter system is investigating what caused the malfunction in the system’s three “pre-filters.”

Boe said the parish is examining other devices that could help the parish clean tap water from Ruddock wells, but he said that the parish initially wants the present system to work for the parish’s needs.

As a short-term solution, Boe said the parish plans to hook some LaPlace homes into the Lions Water Treatment Plant, which supplies Reserve and Garyville with water from the Mississippi River. The parish already has plans to expand the Reserve treatment plant as part of the 2009 bond issue.

Boe said the parish is also looking into treating the Ruddock well water with chlorine dioxide instead of chlorine in an effort to lower the concentration of trihalomethanes. The parish has six months to comply with the order.