The Country’s drinking water system exhibited the highest number of violations of federal regulations among all the jurisdictions in the United States.
According to a report published yesterday by three environmental organizations that conduct academic and community work, in total, 99.5% of people in Puerto Rico consumed during 2015 water that failed to meet several parameters in the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which could have placed people’s health at risk.
The report “Threats on Tap: Drinking Water Violations in Puerto Rico” comes from a study by non government organizations Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), El Puente: Latino Climate Action Network, and the National Association of Environmental Law (ANDA, by its Spanish acronym).
Among the deficiencies of the water coming out of the tabs in homes and businesses in Puerto Rico, according to the report, is the presence of fecal coliforms, arsenic, lead, copper, and other pollutants. The report also warned about the lack of a water quality analysis and the absence of reports on the system’s failure.
According to the document, 69.4% of the population -equivalent to 2.4 million people – were supplied in 2015 from water systems infected with high levels of pollutants.
“What concerns us the most is that so many people on the Island who rely on potable water may be drinking water that is not being well managed or that steps are being taken to ensure the measurement of its quality,” said David Ortiz, director of community organization El Puente.
The system with the highest number of violations was that of the Metropolitan area, which supplies, according to report data, 1,064,730 people. There, 64 violations were found, among them, violations to the Lead, Copper, and Arsenic Norms, in addition to the presence of coliform bacteria and other organic pollutants.
“The Puerto Rico water system is failing and it requires serious investment to ensure safe and clean drinking water for the Island,” said in a written statement Erik Olson, director of the Health Program for the NRDC, an organization based in New York.
According to the analysis conducted, from 2005 through 2015, 33,842 violations to the Safe Drinking Water Act were found in Puerto Rico. In 2015 alone, there were reported 545 violations to health standards in 201 of the 406 of the Island’s supply networks. Also, 607 violations to the Lead and Copper Norm were reported in 158 water supply networks that served 3,379,808 people.
“All except one of said violations were due to the lack of testing to detect lead or omitting to render reports to the authorities and notifying the public when detecting problems in the system,” says the document, which also warns that a lot of water samples exceeded the Lead Action Level of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Thisfinding was of particular importance to Ortiz, who labeled the situation as a “water crisis like no other in the United States.”
Partial validation. Although several officials with the government of Puerto Rico partly validated the report’s findings, they warned that most of the non-compliances are related to the lack of monitoring and public notification of the condition in the Country’s water systems.
“The water (potable in Puerto Rico) is fit to drink, it poses no risk to (peoples’) safety,” insisted Elí Díaz Atienza, an engineer who is president of the Aqueduct and Sewage Authority (AAA, by its Spanish acronym).
Although he admitted “a small percentage of violations for high levels of pollutants,” he called the attention to that the report fails to detail whether the systems in which violations were detected are part of the 164 belonging to the AAA or are part of the 302 that operate privately.
Also, he observed that, if the organizations’ analyzes found a violation in any of the networks supplying the system, it extended its effects to users throughout the structure instead of limiting them to the point the violation was found.
Díaz Atienza recognized that, because of the fiscal crisis, the AAA is not undertaking major infrastructure works, but rather repairs and minor operational improvements, and highlighted the importance for the public corporation to obtain federal funds that go to the Capital Improvements’ Plan.
Engineer Javier Torres, director of the Division of Drinking Water of the Department of Health, agreed in that one violation in one sample point does not affect the entire population supplied by that source. Also, he said that the report fails to indicate what subsequent actions were taken following the report of the violations. However, he insisted that an investment of funds is needed to repair the infrastructure which, due to operational use, wears out.
Solutions are urgent
To Arturo Massol, spokesperson for community organization Casa Pueblo, to state that 99.5% of the population has been affected for violations in the Country’s drinking water quality is a dangerous argument that could lead to the wrong solutions.
“Yes, there are specific issues to address, but the key lies in protecting the water basins supplying these (drinking water) plants,” he stressed.
To leave these basins unprotected, he said, translates into a greater water treatment effort that is more expensive in the long term.
In his opinion, the government has invested in a water infrastructure that fulfills its role despite facing some difficulties. He regretted, however, that drinking water in Puerto Rico has to meet certain federal standards that don’t apply to tropical environments such as Puerto Rico’s.
Although Massol admitted to violations of certain federal regulations, he said that some are due to occasional events, such as turbidity and the large amount of sediments that can be seen in water following a period of strong rains.
“That is why (I believe) we must be careful (with the report) because it could lead to creating a crisis to justify (the use of) bottled water and that the Country may continue getting deeper into debt with more infrastructure,” he noted.
For Evelyn Rivera Ocasio, who chairs the local chapter of the Inter American Association of Sanitary and Environmental Engineer (AIDIS, by its Spanish acronym), the report’s conclusion are “alarmist” and fail to take into account that the AAA’s system is one of the most complex among all the jurisdictions in the United States.
“While it is true that the violations happened as reported, the report only recommends investing the capital to develop projects for the improvement of the drinking water treatment infrastructure,” said Rivera Ocasio, who deplored that the document fails to present solutions to address a basic problem which, in his opinion, the Country really has: the comprehensive protection of its water resources.
Also, the attorney recalled that, two years ago, the Country faced one of the harshest droughts in its history and that, currently, it faces a complicated financial forecast.
“We can all do our bit to ensure that the water we consume and use is safe,” she said.