Americans are accustomed to things just working. Flip a switch and the lights come on. Open a tap and clean water flows from it. But, as investments in essential infrastructure have declined, problems with things like drinking water have begun to crop up more frequently.
The problems with lead contamination of the Flint, Michigan, water system persist even as the headlines have faded. Louisiana has not been immune to these issues. The state of Louisiana rescued the St. Joseph water system from problems. Baton Rouge is plagued by salt water intrusion as ExxonMobil and Georgia Pacific continue to suck huge amounts of water from the Southern Hills Aquifer for use in their industrial processes (while other companies use river water). Water systems in several Louisiana parishes have been found to contain brain-eating amoeba (a problem that can usually be cleared up by increasing the amount of chlorine added to the system).
Lafayette Utilities Systems’ main water well field is located on what was once the north side of the town — just across the railroad tracks around Mudd Avenue and Simcoe Street. That area abuts an abandoned railroad yard that included a roundhouse and train cleaning and repair facility. For seven decades or more, solvents and chemicals of various kinds were used to degrease engines and apparatus, much of it being allowed to spill onto the ground where it was absorbed.
Kim Goodell of WaterMark Alliance says the contamination from that now-abandoned rail yard poses an imminent threat to Lafayette’s water system as traces of contaminants from the rail yard have turned up in samples taken from the nearby LUS wells. In any given day, LUS draws about 20 million gallons of water from the wells in that field.
Two other factors add urgency to the situation.
The first is that recent studies have found that the Chicot Aquifer (the primary groundwater resource in south Louisiana) rises very near the surface of the ground near the rail yard. In some spots, the aquifer is as little as 30 feet below the surface. That would indicate that any chemicals in the abandoned rail yard don’t have far to travel before they have reached the aquifer.
The second factor is the proposed plan to build the I-49 Connector through downtown Lafayette. An elevated segment of the road would run directly through the rail yard, resulting in hundreds of pilings being driven through the site and possibly into the aquifer, driving contamination toward the aquifer in the process.
Beyond the public health threat, the contamination near the water well field could force LUS to relocate its wells and go through the expense of having to reconfigure the structure of the water system.
Kim discusses the problems with the rail yard, the lack of any comprehensive study of the extent of the contamination of the site, and the kinds of threats these pose to Lafayette’s drinking water.