While the number of the Authority of Aqueducts and Sewers (PRASA) customers with service restored increases, doubts arise about the potability of water that reaches residents in Puerto Rico after the hit of Maria.
As a result of the hurricane, dozens of water and wastewater treatment plants remained inactive. In addition, damage suffered by the laboratories of the public corporation in Caguas and Arecibo, where the water quality is certified, has forced PRASA to pay not budgeted thousands of dollars to private entities to carry out this essential task.
Although the President of PRASA, Elí Díaz Atienza, defended the quality of drinking water that goes from the filtration system to homes and oases, the director of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Puerto Rico Rico, Carmen Guerrero, preferred to talk about methods of purification of liquids and disease prevention.
Can water from faucets be considered reliable at this time? The official was asked.
"Right now, we recommended that all water used for drinking, brushing teeth, cooking, or washing dishes be boiled. All water.
Water supplied by PRASA complies with the standards of the Department of Health, as we know, there have been ruptures along the pipes that can cause some damage or contamination, it is better to take actions towards prevention. Our call is for prevention," she replied.
She urged citizens to take the necessary measures to ensure the purity of the water they consume and use in their homes "until further notice" to prevent gastrointestinal outbreaks or other diseases.
However, in an interview with El Nuevo Día, the president of PRASA ruled out ruptures or damage on the pipes in the aqueduct system, and assured that "the water that is coming to the houses complies with all the federal and state requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is administered by the Department of Health and EPA."
The head of the Authority acknowledged that once a system comes into operation, the water that runs initially through the pipes may carry sediments and impurities, so he said that a 24-hour cleaning process is carried out, like what happened with La Plata recently.
Until yesterday, 63.75% of PRASA users had service.
According to data provided by PRASA, 27 of 115 drinking water treatment plants are not operating, which - Diaz Atienza said- has contributed to the delay in restoring service to 100% of customers.
"It is important to mention that Puerto Rico has a fairly robust system of water treatment. If our plants are operating, it is because all the elements required to ensure compliance with state and federal standards are working properly," he said.
The official said that staff from different areas of PRASA, such as billing and customer service, are supporting the efforts to comply with quality standards. He did not say how they are doing it.
To questions of this newspaper, the president of the public corporation recognized that PRASA internal laboratories, located in Caguas and Arecibo, where the quality of drinking water is supposed to be certified, suffered damages due to the atmospheric phenomenon. However, the one in Mayagüez is fully operating
Complications caused by the lack of laboratories led to the hiring of the Eqlab laboratory to comply with the daily bacteriological analyzes in the plants of the east and metropolitan area. Tests for the rest of the plants will be carried out in Mayagüez.
Meanwhile, chemical evaluations will be carried out by private laboratories Eqlab and Altol Chemical Environmental Laboratory.
"All plants have checkpoints before they leave and are regularly tested to ensure compliance with all state and federal standards. So far, according to the information I have from the compliance director, no bacteria have been registered in the water," he pointed out.
Eqlab will charge $ 80,000 per month, specified Díaz Atienza, who could not indicate the amount of the contract with Altol.
At present, PRASA does not receive income for billing and has a $ 5,08 billion.
To pay private laboratories, the corporation will include their bills on the claim for reimbursement to be submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
FAILURES IN SEWAGE STRUCTURE
In addition to expressing concerns about the quality of drinking water, the director of EPA noted the failure of some 20 water treatment plants in Puerto Rico. "Those sewage effluents are overflowing," warned Guerrero.
When confronted with the information, the president of PRASA confirmed that 22 water treatment plants are not currently in operation.
"Overflows are in the lines of those 22 (plants)," he indicated. However, he said he did not count the specific number of how many overflows had to be attended by PRASA’s staff after Maria.
"If there is no power, no water is processed. It stays in the plant. What can happen is that a sanitary sewer manhole overflows. So what we are doing is going there, we remove the manholes, we suck up, we suck up, we suck up, and then we put it in one of our plants that are operating, and that's it," he expressed, attributing a degree of simplicity to the process.
"What I have to make sure that it does not overflow. The fact o that (wastewater water) is in the pipeline is not a problem. The problem is that it fill to the point of overflowing. There may be overflow, but it is collected, cleaned and taken to the plant," he indicated.
The head of EPA expressed greater concern than Diaz Atienza about the issue and urged citizens to avoid interaction with all water sources in the face of possible contamination with wastewater material.
"We have seen people bathing in the rivers, the beach, washing clothes. We make a call to avoid direct contact with water sources in Puerto Rico. Studies done by the Environmental Quality Board on water quality generally show that many of the water sources in Puerto Rico are normally in breach of water quality standards for direct contact with the levels of fecal coliforms found in the water," he explained.
"Due to the problems in PRASA water treatment plants, in addition to the pumping stations of this wasteater, we see sanitary sewage overflows throughout the island," she lamented.
She also mentioned that 46% of the population is not connected to the sanitary sewer system and use septic tanks that are not necessarily well builtor maintained.
About illegal sanitary sewage effluents, Diaz Atienza recalled that although PRASA works to avoid them, they have always existed,
"Our drinking water is treated. Where we have water intakes, we treat that. We recommend not to drink water from springs, rivers. We are going to try to attend any situation of effluents in water sources quickly, and we will also try to clean them on the roads", concluded the official.
El Nuevo Dia tried to contact an official of the Department of Health, but –by press time- this had not happened.