On Your Side Investigation: What's in Hattiesburg's Brown Water?

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - After months of complaints from Hattiesburg residents about discolored water, WDAM 7 News is finding out what's in the city's water, if it's safe to drink and how Hattiesburg city leaders plan to fix it.

"If there's one thing that is extremely important to everyone, it's water, and clean, healthy water," said Harry Crumpler III, owner of T-Bones Records and Cafe in Hattiesburg.

Sitting between North 22nd and 21st Avenues, T-Bones shares the same Hattiesburg neighborhood with residents who have complained about brown water for months. Crumpler said they city's water is taking a toll on the industrial filtration system the restaurant uses to ensure coffee, teas, and soda are made with clean water.

"We go through many, many filtration systems to make sure that what comes in our ice, our coffee, our tea, anything in here, sodas, is the highest quality of water," Crumpler said. "That gets a little more cost prohibitive when you start looking at how much we're having to maintain our filtration system. Normally, that would be a twice a year thing for us. Right now, it's a six to eight times a year thing for us."

Crumpler said having clear water is essential for the cafe, but the extra work to keep it clean comes at an extra cost.

"Basically we're talking about an extra $1,200, maybe $1,500 a year to maintain the quality of our water," he said.

Crumpler said he's been paying to change his filters that frequently for about two years, and he often thinks of residents in nearby neighborhoods, like Callison Richardson, who don't have that kind of filtration systems in their homes..

"The water is brown in our house, and this is just an example of all the whites," Richardson told city council members as she held up a white towel covered in stains. "All my shirts, all of my sheets, all of the white towels have been ruined."

Crumpler said, "It's not just a question of aesthetics as we were talking about. It's a question of what's making it that color?"

That's what WDAM 7 News set out to investigate- what's in the water, and is it safe to drink?

We sent a water sample from a Parkhaven neighborhood home to be tested by experts at Drinking Water Specialists. The lab tests for more than 100 different things from metals to chemicals to compare how much is in the water to levels set by the EPA. Hattiesburg's water had small amounts of things like copper, iron and lead, but nothing over the limits.

"It's unsightly," said Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, who said he's also had brown water at his Hattiesburg home. "It's not something that we want to be known for, but it's one of those things with a 135 year old city that you have to contend with."

Even without health concerns, Crumpler said it's the sediment in the water causing problems at his business.

"What the sediment and things in the water can do is ruin equipment, stain things, cause plumbing issues," he said.

Lamar Rutland, Hattiesburg's city engineer, agrees the problem is sediment. Rutland said iron in the water is causing the discoloration, and said the city is already working on ways to reduce the amount.

Rutland said his department mapped where those calling into the city's action center with complaints about brown water lived, and found the major live in areas with undersized water lines, which are four inches in diameter or less. Rutland showed an example piece of pipe to city council members Monday, and it fit in a sandwich-sized Ziploc bag.

"You're talking infrastructure 50 to 100 years old," Rutland said.

Rutland said increasing the size means less pressure and scraping on the sides of the lines as the water flows through, which hopefully leads to less iron and fewer bits of pipe mixed into the water.

The city's also working to find and fix dead-end lines and broken valves to keep the water flowing freely.

"We have lines that are not connected," said Council Vice President Mary Dryden, who represents residents living in Parkhaven. "Some of these things happened back in the 50s, so it's not to point blame or say that anybody did anything wrong. We just need to find out how we can solve this."

Hattiesburg's also working with contractor Shows, Dearman and Waits to upgrade Water Plant 1 with new filters to remove any iron coming from the ground water.

DuPree and Dryden said these are projects the city can start quickly or have already started.

"We're moving just as fast as we can," DuPree said. "If it was one solution, we'd be out there right now digging up streets to do it, but it's not one solution."

Dryden said, "We wouldn't want to tear up the entire city at one time was the statement that was made. We've got to decide which neighborhoods are going to be first. That's a question."

Long term, Rutland said he'd ideally like to spend between $500,000 and $1 million a year on water line repairs, and said at that rate, he estimates it will take 5 to 7 years to fix different problem areas throughout Hattiesburg.

As city projects get underway, Crumpler says he'll keep paying to keep his water clear.

"I never enjoy an additional expense," he said. "I'm happy to pay this one. I would like to see it be less of a necessity in the future."