Is Your Water Safe?
by Keith Burton 3/19/07 GCN
Most of us in America have grown up thinking that our drinking water is safe to consume and trust our local and state government to keep it that way. But since Hurricane Katrina, several Coast communities, especially Gulfport, have been plagued with a continuous series of broken water and sewer pipes. Many of the broken pipes are the result of ongoing repairs to Gulfport's aging water system made worse by Katrina, and new construction.
Almost every week somewhere in Gulfport, a water main is braking, which state regulations require the city to issue boil water notices. But most residents may not be seeing these notices because they only appear once in the local paper or buried in an article online on the newspaper's website.
GCN called residents in the Loren D. Heights subdivision, which is part of a recent Boil Water notice issued March 12, to see if they knew about the notice. What we found out is that many didn't.
"I didn't know about it," said Curtis Fick, who lives at 2511 Woolmarket Street. "I don't get the newspaper and we haven't heard about a boil water notice."
Fick said that since the city had taken over the utility, formerly run by Dedeaux Utility Company, he has never received a notice of any type. Fick said he had lived in the neighborhood for 20 years and in the past, Dedeaux would post a note at his door or send a message via a computerized telephone system to let residents know of problems, but not since the city bought out the utility. Fick said that he also doesn't use a computer and would not have seen an online notice.
Another nearby resident, also affected by the current boil water notice is Pamela Cuevas at 2318 Norris Circle. Cuevas said she knew about the boil water notice but only as a result visiting with her mother, who gets the Sun Herald newspaper. Norris told GCN that she didn't get the paper and she felt that neither do many of her neighbors. "I wouldn't have seen the notice since I don't get the paper," Cuevas said
The Mississippi Department of Health is the state agency that is responsible for insuring the water systems in Mississippi meet federal regulations. The department's website often carries information on boil water notices in counties and municipalities, but GCN was surprised to learn that cities don't have to report boil water notices. GCN asked MDH officials about the numerous boil water notices in Gulfport.
"The Mississippi Department of Health (MDH) usually asks to be notified, but these boil water notices issued recently by Gulfport are in response to isolated main breaks due to the tremendous amount of construction in Gulfport. It would be impractical for the city to report all of these," said Keith Allen, engineer administrator and director of the Bureau of Public Water Supply at the Mississippi Department of Health.
GCN received Allen's comment in a prepared response to our questions. In a question if Gulfport had to report the notices, Allen said simply, "No."
What is happening is that as boil water notices are issued and unseen. Hundreds of Gulfport families may be unaware that their water is not suitable for drinking and face potential health issues from failing to know about boil water issues affecting their neighborhoods.
While the city is notifying the newspaper, it is clear that many residents do not get the paper and therefore never realize the risks they are taking.
In addition, the lack of the State Health Department's oversight of this particularly risky problem demonstrates that the state is failing to make sure water is safe to drink. The health department requires water utilities to test their water on a routine basis, but the actual testing is done by the utility or city, then the utility submits the findings to the health department, a method that puts the utility in charge of its reporting where fines could be issued if problems are found.
The reality is that many of the Coast's communities are experiencing water and sewer breaks from damaged lines from Katrina, most of which have yet to be repaired. The repairs are costly and while the federal government has made available FEMA grants to repair broken lines in the Katrina damaged areas, they will not pay cities to upgrade aging system such as what Gulfport has. So work is moving at a piecemeal rate as Gulfport has the money.
Gulfport operates a city website where it sometimes posts boil water notices. But the website is not often current and over several months of observation, the city's website doesn't post every boil water notice, even when there are some published in the newspaper. As of Monday, March 19, the city's website showed a boil water notice for residents who live in the area of Orange Grove Road from Oak Lane west to Palm Valley Cove and makes no mention of the Loren D' Heights subdivision notice. The city's website was offline on Sunday, March 18.
The Mississippi Department of Health website make no mention of the latest Gulfport boil water notices.
What is needed is a better system of communication that includes print, television and the Internet to keep the public informed, and better oversight by the state.
Gulfport also faces other water issues. Many of the city's sewer pipes are leaking, which allow rain and groundwater to seep into the system. This leaking greatly increases the volume of sewage that has to be treated by the sewage treatment plants in the city. Following a severe rainstorm in early February, the sewage treatment plant near the Gulfport Lake southeast of the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport was overwhelmed. The plant's operators tell GCN that the plant usually sees around 5 million gallons a day, but on that rainy day, the plant was inundated by nearly 22 million gallons, greatly exceeding the plant's processing ability.
Nearly all of the Coast's sewage treatment plants were damaged by Katrina, and 19 months after the hurricane, are yet in full operating condition. Officials with the Harrison County Utility Authority say that the agency has had trouble in getting FEMA approval for costly repairs. The problem is that FEMA generally will approve repairs to the pre-existing level, but of the equipment needed is more expensive or unavailable and has to be re-engineered.