ST. JOSEPH, Louisiana — The stuff that comes out of the taps in northeast Louisiana can be overwhelming if you’re not ready for it. The yellow-brown sludge that smells like rotten eggs isn't great, but it is better than the stuff that pours out midnight black.
Technically, it’s probably safe to drink. Several homes in this community are still testing above normal lead levels, but most meet the minimum government standard for safe drinking water.
But that doesn’t mean people are drinking it.
“No, it should not be consumed,” said chemist Wilma Subra, who has been uncovering dangerous water systems since the 1980s. “It has all these precipitates in it and you don't want [that]. You wouldn't give it to a person on chemo. You wouldn't give it to a baby in their water on their sippy cup. You'd want them to have better protection.”
And not only is the water terrible, it comes in such small portions. Residents here have seen a 45 percent spike in water bills stemming from region-wide infrastructure problems that have plagued the water system for years.
The problem isn’t the source of the water; it’s the pipes, which contaminate the water after it leaves the city’s water system and enters the home water system’s aging, flaking, peeling pipes. But this area near the state border with Mississippi is poor, and there’s not enough money to fix the issues.
An emergency order freeing up $9 million in grants and tax money to replace the city’s 90-year-old system did start running six months ago, but getting people to trust their drinking water again will likely take a lot longer.
This segment originally aired August 22, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.