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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Thirst for Safe Water, Part 3: Mississippi Drinking Water: Epic Danger

Air Date: Week of

The Mississippi watershed drains more than a million square miles of forests, farmland and cities in North America, often carrying with it a heavy load of pesticides and other pollutants. For the people who have to draw their drinking water from the river, the high concentrations of toxic chemicals are a cause for concern. Brenda Tremblay (TROM-blay) travels down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans for this report.


CURWOOD: It's part of Pittsburgh and Denver. It stretches from Alberta to New Orleans. It's the Mississippi watershed, one of the world's great river systems that drains more than a million square miles of forests, farmlands, and cities in North America. The Mississippi watershed is home for a great variety of wildlife, and a key waterway for shipping. But it also carries a heavy load of pesticides and other pollutants. And for the people who have to draw their drinking water from the river, the high concentrations of toxic chemicals are a daily cause for concern. As part of our series The Thirst for Safe Water, Brenda Tremblay traveled down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans.

(River sounds)

TREMBLAY: It's easy to see why they call it the "Big Muddy." A few miles north of St. Louis, the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers meet to form a wide and breathtaking expanse of water. The murky brown river churns and foams at the banks where large limbs tangle in the brush and bald eagles swoop down to pluck fish from its rapids.

(Churning, splashing)

Here at the place called The Chain of Rocks, two hundred thousand cubic feet of water rush by every second, carrying sediment that has washed off the farms, forests, and mining operations of eleven upstream states. (More river sounds to a water treatment plant) For people who live and work along its banks, like St. Louis water commissioner David Visintainer, the river is an irresistible force.

VISINTAINER: We look on it as almost a living entity. It's constantly changing. It can be very calm and peaceful at times. It can be rampaging and destructive at others, though.

TREMBLAY: The destruction is unleashed at times like the floods of 1993, when the Mississippi wreaked havoc on towns and cities along its banks. But even in calmer years, the river brings dangers that drinking water officials from Minneapolis to New Orleans must confront; dangers like partially-treated sewage and urban run-off, industrial waste and pesticides washing off thousands of farms.

(Sounds of water treatment plant motor humming)

David Visintainer deals with these problems every day here at the St. Louis water treatment plant. Huge pipelines pump the river water into treatment basins where chlorine is added for disinfection. Then the water runs through forty filters to remove mud and other solids. There's even a special system for dealing with one of the thorniest problems: pesticides. It mixes carbon with the river water in huge vats.

VISINTAINER: It's very, very fine, fine carbon particles. It will then absorb organic type contaminants. It's a process that isn't 100 percent effective but is very effective in removal and we will use extensive amounts of that carbon during the spring runoff periods when for us agricultural run-off is the big issue.

TREMBLAY: Mr. Visintainer says he's frustrated. The carbon treatment equipment alone cost the city of St. Louis almost a million dollars to install, and every spring, during what's known as 'the spring flush' when high concentrations of pesticides wash off Midwestern farmland, he spends seven thousand dollars a day on powdered carbon. St. Louis officials manage to meet federal drinking water standards most of the time, but only at a huge cost, and Mr. Visintainer wishes that he had less contaminated water to begin with.

(Sounds of rushing water)

Altogether, eighteen million people drink out of the Mississippi River system. And cities from Cincinnati to St. Paul to Omaha spend millions every year to make the water drinkable. But in a way, big cities are lucky. They can afford sophisticated treatment equipment to remove high concentrations of pesticides. Often smaller communities, where four million people live and drink out of the Mississippi, can't afford it. So anywhere people can avoid drawing their drinking water from the river, they do.

(Sounds of children playing and counting) Two hundred miles south of St. Louis, Memphis, Tennessee sits on a bluff above the Mississippi. River commerce used to be Memphis' lifeblood. Here the Mississippi is even more vast than at St. Louis. It's been joined by the Ohio and the Tennessee. Twenty-four million gallons of water a minute flow past this city, but its inhabitants don't drink a drop of it. Memphis draws its drinking water from deep wells.

WEBB: I tell you, for Memphis, we're so thankful for the kind of water that we have.

TREMBLAY: James Webb works for the Memphis utility company. He says Memphis is lucky to be sitting at the center of the Mississippi Embayment, a vast, oblong trough that holds 150 billion gallons of water that's seeped down through thick layers of clay and sand. Mr. Webb says that this water is two thousand years old and it has no trace of any man made chemical in it. Unlike surface water drawn from the river, he says, water from the aquifer needs very little treatment.

WEBB: That's another advantage that we have over the surface water people. Most have crypto spirillim. Most of them have high bacterial counts and uh they have algae blooms with which have taste and odor and we just don't have those problems in Memphis. We're really blessed.

TREMBLAY: Drawing water from the aquifer is expensive. Each new well in the fast-growing Memphis area costs a quarter of a million dollars. And there are concerns about over-pumping the aquifer. But the costs are far less than having to clean up the river water.

(Waves, barges)

On the riverfront in New Orleans, enormous, rusty barges slide up the river, belching acrid smoke and leaving the brown waves foaming in their wake. The swirling river is a mile wide here, and it carries three times as much water as in St. Louis. Every second, six-hundred thousand cubic feet of water flows south. On the final stretch of the river's journey to the Gulf of Mexico, eighty miles away. This is the end of the giant pipeline.

WILEY: What we're getting here is a gumbo of different kind of chemicals.

TREMBLAY: Darryl Malek-Wiley is the president of the Mississippi River Basin Alliance, which tries to raise awareness about river pollution. By the time the river reaches this point, it's laden with PCBs, pesticides, volatile organic compounds, oils, heavy metals, and dioxins. Between Baton Rogue and New Orleans alone, industries release half of all toxic discharges to surface water in the United States. Despite the pollution in the water, Mr. Malek-Wiley finds solace here at the riverfront. He comes to relax and watch the barges, ships, and tugboats chug by.

MALEK-WILEY: This is the river of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Mark Twain, Faulkner, uh, and we have allowed this river to become trashed.

TREMBLAY: Mr. Malek-Wiley says one of the main problems is the lack of accountability for the pollution. The watershed drains parts of thirty states and two Canadian provinces. But the main branches of the river only flow through a few states.

MALEK-WILEY: Every place else, it's the boundary, so Kentucky can say, it's not our problem, it's Missouri's problem or Iowa can say, it's not our problem it's Illinois' problem. We wanna have a voice for the river.

TREMBLAY: So Mr. Malek-Wiley talks about the river up and down the Basin, trying to infect other people with his enthusiasm for restoring the Big Muddy. He also worries about the people who drink out of the river. In New Orleans alone, that's a million and a half people.

MALEK-WILEY: The sewage and water board here in New Orleans does a great job of getting things out, making the water taste good, but I still have the concerns about the low levels of chemicals in there.

TREMBLAY: He's not alone. Although the federal government sets standards for drinking water, even some policymakers think those standards aren't good enough. Researchers are concerned about the effects of chronic exposure to low levels of chemicals. They are especially concerned about the possible effects of the combinations of different chemicals often found in rivers like the Mississippi. And even with extensive treatment, spikes of contaminants make it through people's tap water here in New Orleans. In 1995, drinking water violated federal standards for pesticides for an entire month. And then there's the occasional industrial spill.

STINGHAM: Phenyl spill, chemical spill up river.


TREMBLAY: Tom Stingham walks into his garage in a well-to-do suburb of New Orleans. When a Louisiana chemical company spilled toxic phenyl into the Mississippi a few years ago, the retired fireman headed for his local home water treatment center, bought a system and installed it in the corner of his garage.

STINGHAM: People were complaining about the taste. I had none with this. This took it all out.

TREMBLAY: How much did that cost?

STINGHAM: I guess about a thousand dollars when I bought it.

TREMBLAY: It's hot outside today, so Mr. Stingham is cooling off, watching TV, enjoying the comfort of his central air conditioning and sipping ice water.

(TV, faucet runs, sips)

STINGHAM: It's wet, it's cool, it's delightful.

TREMBLAY; But not everyone in southern Louisiana can afford to shell out big money for safe water.

HASTEN: I say can you smell the water?

TREMBLAY: Albertha Hasten tries to cool off by sitting in the breeze in front of the screen door in her small, cypress-sided house. She lives in the town of White Castle where the average household income is seventeen thousand dollars a year. In her kitchen, Mrs. Hasten draws a glass of water from the tap and holds it up to the light. It looks like weak tea, and it smells like rotten eggs.

HASTEN: Now try drinking this water. See, look the particles comin' down? Ah, see the particles? Can't you smell it? This is what people have to do . . . it looks so pretty and nice but just look at the water. And that's a good day.

TREMBLAY: She dumps the water down the drain in disgust.

HASTEN: That's a real good day. Some days it's blacker than me.

TREMBLAY: Mrs. Hasten says most of the people in White Castle are forced to buy bottled water because their tap water looks and smells so bad. She, too, is repulsed by the taste and smell of the water, but she's more worried about the health effects of chemicals in her water, especially on her kids.

HASTEN: C'mere, Wilber!

TREMBLAY: Albertha Hasten's son, Wilber, arrives home with his shoulders slumped. He got into trouble again, and picked a fight with his older sister.

HASTEN: How do you act at school?

WILBER: Somebody make me mad I get uh, like, I'll come here to watch TV like a person, a person, and my sister she got mad. Everytime she start running to my mama and I get mad.

TREMBLAY: Mrs. Hasten says Wilber goes into these rages and gets into fights. His grades are too low, and she thinks he's being affected by herbicides in their drinking water.

HASTEN: In this community children have been known to be very hyperactive, having behavior problems, going into rages, fighting, not learning well, writing backwards, cannot comprehend, having low scores, and CAT testing, etc. So that was a concern as a parent. Hearing other parents and communicating with them and hearing what is going on with the water.

(Car bell, door slams)

HASTEN: A hundred and fifteen years old...

TREMBLAY: We get into the car and head west toward the middle of town.

HASTEN: I'm giving you a tour of White Castle town.

TREMBLAY: We drive past the river levy, by the basketball court, and past the public housing tract to main street.

HASTEN: Those boys be waiting on the people to bring them dope money.

TREMBLAY: You think so?

HASTEN: I know so. Every last one of them quit school when they was in the seventh grade. Hey Ruth!

RUTH: Hey.

TREMBLAY: Along the way Mrs. Hasten greets everyone we meet. Suddenly, she spots the mayor and orders me to stop the car so she can confront him. As she approaches, mayor Maurice Brown throws up his arms and rolls his eyes toward the sky. He knows what he's going to hear about: pesticides in Mrs. Hasten's drinking water. He's heard it all before.

HASTEN: It's the aquifer because of the atrazine and the river is high now, I'm concerned because it seeps, it come through the levee and through the water and that's a concern that we have and we've been saying it for over, how many years now, mayor? Seven years?

MAYOR BROWN: Yeah. To be honest with you, I can't agree with that. I just totally can't agree with that. There might be behavioral problems, but I don't think it's associated with the water. You know, water supply having something to do with behavior problems? I mean, how is that associated?

TREMBLAY: The mayor thinks Albertha Hasten's theory is preposterous, but she may be onto something. Researchers have linked some pesticides and other manmade chemicals to hormonal, neurological, and reproductive problems in animals. Researchers conducting studies in the Great Lakes and the Netherlands have found that hormone disrupting chemicals seem to be causing learning and behavioral problems in children.

(Sounds of children playing outdoors)

TREMBLAY: Albertha Hasten wants answers about her own kids. She's written letters to state officials, urging them to conduct a health survey in her town. She goes to public meetings and challenges her local officials to spend more money on water treatment. For seven years she's been trying to get help for her community.

HASTEN: There are problems with people having allergies, having respiratory problems coming from the spraying of pesticides, coming through the water supplies. They're still problems out here with these children that need to be addressed and it has to start with the water supply.

TREMBLAY: A block from the river levee, Mrs. Hasten watches her son Wilbur playing with his friends. The levee separates White Castle from the Mississippi, and she says that no one is even allowed to walk on it anymore. Instead of enlivened by its water, she feels cut off from the river and threatened by its pollution. And she's finding out that scientists know more about the effects of river pollution on fish than they do about its effects on people. For Albertha Hasten and her son Wilber, for Tom Stingham, Darryl Malek-Wiley, for James Webb and David Visinthainer, dealing with the water of their river, the nation's greatest river, is a daily challenge full of fear and uncertainty. Or at least expense, every time they turn on the tap. The "Big Muddy" of today is a long way from the river of Mark Twain. And even with better laws and stricter vigilance, it'll be a long way back. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay in White Castle, Louisiana.



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