Pineville Horror

Sewage water flowed in their faucets

Pipeline foul-up angers Louisianans, costs public official his job

May 29, 2000

PINEVILLE, Louisiana (CNN) -- The tap water at Zelma McCoy's house was the color of mud. Neighbor Christy Chua was bothered by the stench. "Whenever we'd take a shower it really smelled," she told CNN.

They are among 350 residents of the Walden Point subdivision in Pineville, Louisiana, who unknowingly drank and bathed in water contaminated by sewage for almost three months because city workers mistakenly connected a sewer line to an underground water pipe.

The problem, discovered earlier this month, has since been fixed, says Mayor Clarence Fields.

'I have been drinking sewage water'

City officials say health risks were minimal because enough chlorine is put in the water supply to kill most bacteria. But residents of this central Louisiana city, who were temporarily ordered to boil their tap water, are disgusted and angry.

"I get physically ill when I think that I have been bathing, drinking and washing my clothes and dishes in sewage water," Tammy Campbell said.

The filters on Campbell's washing machine, dishwasher and refrigerator ice-maker became clogged with a white stringy substance, which she later learned was used toilet paper.

The water heaters of other residents filled up with what they originally thought was dirt -- but turned out to be excrement.

Lawsuits, resignation

Fields acknowledges that city workers made a mistake in March when they fixed a burst water main and inadvertently connected the sewer line to the water pipe.

The unmarked pipes are about the same size, the mayor told CNN.

The foul-up has led to two lawsuits and the resignation of Pineville Public Works Director O.D. Gray. The city also has replaced a number of contaminated water heaters and flushed the system.

None of that, however, eases Donna Speir's worries. She's pregnant -- scheduled to give birth next week -- and worries that her unborn baby may have been harmed.

Despite such complaints, health officials sound relieved. "The fact that it could happen may be disgusting, but so far there's been no medical evidence of anybody getting sick or having any problems because of this," said Dr. John Naponick of the Louisiana Office of Public Health.

In a bit of unfortunate irony for Fields, his re-election opponent is former Pineville Mayor Fred Baden -- a plumber.

"It goes back to inexperience, with people not paying attention to their job," Baden says of his rival.

The water contamination prompted many Walden Point residents to start using bottled water for drinking and cooking. Going back to the faucet won't come easy, says McCoy.

"I'm just afraid right now, and I know it's going to be a long time before I trust that water again."