This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.
CAMPTI, La. – Deep in the winding mass of crumbling back streets in Campti, Leroy Hayes sets a glass of water from his faucet in a patch of sunlight on the railing of his porch and watches specks of sediment float to the top.
Hayes said the town’s water system has been bad for years, with water often coming out brown and smelling like bleach. The family uses bottled water for drinking and cooking and often has to drive to the city of Natchitoches, 11 miles away, to wash their clothes. The Campti water leaves their clothes with a yellowish tint.
“Don’t nobody drink that mess,” Hayes said.
Like many poor African-American communities, Campti’s poverty is a significant impediment to making crucial improvements to the town’s infrastructure – including its old water system. Hayes is a lifelong resident of the town, where according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of the predominantly African-American population lives in poverty. Campti’s median household income is only $15,428.
Skepticism about drinking water is pervasive in many black communities, most recently in the urban cities like Milwaukee, where high childhood lead poisoning rates plague the city, and Flint, Michigan, where lead from pipes leached into the city’s water. But it also affects the pockets of poverty in states such as Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina and Texas, where many residents rely on antiquated water systems and haphazard monitoring or live near businesses and industries whose waste, they say, pollutes their water systems.
“Everything that happens now where people don’t want it, it goes into a poor and black neighborhood,” said Esther Calhoun, president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice.
A News21 national analysis of water violations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that tens of millions of Americans are drinking contaminated water – particularly in small, low-income and minority communities. Aging infrastructure and limited funding are two of the major water issues posing a threat to public health, according to the agency’s 2016 Drinking Water Action Plan.
“For someone to say that there’s not a correlation to me means they have their eyes closed, or they don’t want to believe that these impacts are actually happening or don’t want to dedicate the resources to these communities,” said Mustafa Ali, the former assistant associate administrator for environmental justice at the EPA.