Our Opinion: Lucama residents need workarounds for dirty tap water

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The contents of Tiffany Fragoso’s bathroom sink and the stream flowing from the faucet look like the result of a biblical plague. After years of municipal drinking water whose hue ranges from yellow to crimson to rusty brown, Fragoso and her neighbors in Lucama are praying for deliverance.

Town officials say the iron-laden water is safe and levels of the mineral are being monitored. They’ve been awarded grants to replace aging pipes and pumps, but the pace of change is frustratingly slow. Residents feel they have nowhere left to turn.

“I have taken my concerns to (two television stations) and the EPA,” Fragoso writes on our Facebook page. “I have even written to the governor. I have heard nothing from anyone but the Wilson Daily Times.”

We can expose the problem, as we did on Thursday’s front page, but publicity has yet to achieve results. We’re appalled that this foul water continues to flow through municipal pipes in Wilson County. It’s not every street and every home, and the water isn’t always the shade of burnt sienna, but even one home and one day of extreme discoloration a week are too many.

Lucama commissioners are doing their part. Patricia Uzzell was elected to the town board last year and, along with her colleagues, has worked diligently to fix the water system. Lucama has been awarded roughly $2.7 million in funding — mostly grants with some low-interest loans — but that money comes with strings attached. Engineering reports are being prepared. A lasting fix takes time.

Meanwhile, many town residents are living in a perpetual nightmare. Bottled water can be used for drinking and cooking, but they’re forced to bathe and wash their clothing in the tainted tap water.

“The water in Lucama has been terrible for years, YEARS,” Roy Barnes writes on our Facebook page.

Some residents blame their ill health on the water, though officials say the iron levels present aren’t toxic. Fragoso wants an independent lab to test samples from her tap.

“(Town officials) have told us to buy a water filter system,” Fragoso writes. “Most of us cannot afford those systems when we pay to have clean water already.”

Filters might mitigate the issue but don’t seem to be a total fix. The filthy flow turned Barbara Shaut’s home water filter black within a month of its installation, she told Times reporter Drew C. Wilson. An image of her holding the stained filter aloft was printed on Thursday’s front page.

Fragoso’s right when she says water customers shouldn’t be paying for a substandard product. Yet subsidizing the poor service would only put Lucama further behind when it comes to securing a permanent fix.

We know Lucama’s town government is trying. We think local officials are outmatched and need help.

“The town’s people have been coming to meetings for a long time asking what we were going to do about the water,” Commissioner Uzzell said. “They keep asking, ‘Is this a Flint situation?’”

Iron may not be as hazardous as the toxic lead that leached into the water supply in Flint, Michigan. But this public water crisis still shames our community and our state. Lucama residents have had enough. Surely it’s time to call in the cavalry.

Can state officials do anything to cut through the red tape and speed up the water line replacements? How about the federal government? Lucama is in the 2nd Congressional District, where U.S. Rep. George Holding is elected to tackle complex problems such as this one. We can think of few matters more pressing.

In the near term, it may require public-private partnerships to best meet residents’ needs. Perhaps a gym or fitness center in Wilson County can provide Lucama residents with free access to shower facilities with residency verification. A laundromat could likewise offer free services to ensure families’ clothing isn’t stained by the discolored water. Local, state or federal funds could reimburse these businesses for the costs they will incur.

Each Lucama home affected by the water contamination should be provided with a regular supply of bottled water. We’re not sure who would pay for it or how it would be delivered, but we leave those details to elected officials to work out. After all, they volunteered for the burden and privilege of public service.

The Lucama Board of Commissioners is working toward a permanent fix, but more needs to be done to improve residents’ daily lives in the meantime. Those lives have been profoundly disrupted. These longsuffering souls deserve more options than they’ve been given.