St. Gabriel Mayor quells fears of possible contaminated water, soil

Andrew Green
St. Gabriel Mayor Lionel Johnson

St. Gabriel Mayor Lionel Johnson was recently given the “all-clear” after the city hired a company to test the water and soil of various areas throughout city limits.

In November 2016, St. Gabriel residents approached Mayor Johnson about a serious concern with an increase in deaths in the area.

“From August through the end of the year, it seems like we were having a funeral every other weekend, sometimes two a weekend,” Mayor Johnson said.  “It was rough.”

Johnson said residents were worried about a potential water and soil contamination in the area after the August 2016 flood claiming it may have been the main cause of the increase in the city’s death rate.

In a January City Council meeting, resident Cheryl White approached the council with concerns that Mayor Johnson and the council members were doing nothing to find an answer.

“Something is wrong when twenty or more people are dying after August, after the flood,” White said.  “I’m pleading with you … that someone please take the initiative for our community to go gather water samples and soil samples.

“This issue is very severe in our community and we need help. I want to live.”

Mayor Johnson was absent in the January meeting due to illness, but Mayor Pro-temp Melvin Hasten said that Johnson had already reached out to a company and was waiting to hear back from them.

In April, Mayor Johnson presented his findings to the city council and St. Gabriel residents.  When Mayor Johnson began the study, he investigated each death in St. Gabriel that occurred from August 2016 through December 2016 by reading Coroner’s report, obituaries and speaking with the living relatives of the deceased.

According to Johnson, of the 21 funerals that took place in St. Gabriel only 16 of them were for city residents.

“We found that five of the twenty-one deaths were not living in St. Gabriel and did not die in St. Gabriel.  They had a relationship in St. Gabriel so they had their funeral here,” Johnson said.  

Four of the 16 St. Gabriel resident deaths were because of natural causes, four died from diabetic/kidney complications, three died of heart failures, three died of cancer and two were accidental deaths.

“I think that people thought we would find the majority of those sixteen die from cancer, but we only found three,” Johnson added.  “It’s still an alarming number for such a small community in such a short period of time, but I feel comfortable that the causes of death were evenly spread out.  We really took the concern seriously.”

Some residents theorized that the water and soil had become contaminated due to the August 2016 floods in the area, according to Johnson.  Water from East Baton Rouge Parish backed up into the Spanish Lakes subdivision in St. Gabriel which backed up into St. Gabriel waterways.

Johnson said he and the hired company could not take samples from private property, so they took soil and water samples from each of the four parks within city limits. Sunshine Park, Williams St. Park, Bayou Paul Park and Carville Park each cover all the major areas in the St. Gabriel city limits.  The samples were tested by an independent Department of Environmental Quality certified company.

According to Johnson, of all the samples tested they either did not register contaminants or had such a small amount of contamination that it posed zero danger to residents.

“One death is too many, but there seemed to be no major cause for the deaths that we had from August to December,” Johnson said.  “I felt really good that the soil samples came back basically finding nothing.”

The entire water and soil testing project cost the city around $7,500.  “Money well spent,” added Johnson.