Puerto Rico’s drinking water system fails its people


The Country’s drinking water system fails

A report finds multiple violations both from a lack of monitoring and notifying as well as from the presence of lead and other pollutants

Thursday, May 11, 2017 – 9:39 AM

By Marga Parés Arroyo

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. (Archivo GFR Media)

The Country’s drinking water system exhibited the highest number of violations of federal regulations among all the jurisdictions in the United States.


Hallan plomo y otros contaminantes en el agua potable del País

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).

This finding 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.



Report: Puerto Rico has worst drinking water violation rate

By The Associated Press on May 10, 2017

By Danica Coto

SAN JUAN — The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico has the worst rate of drinking water violations of any U.S. jurisdiction, with dangerous contaminants in recent years ranging from lead to disinfectants to coliform bacteria, an environmental group said Wednesday.

Nearly the entire island was supplied in 2015 with water from systems that violated the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which used the most recent statistics available.

Most of the violations were for failure to test the water’s safety or failure to report issues to the public or health authorities as required, the group said.

Photo Illustration by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

“Millions of people in Puerto Rico consume water daily confident in its quality and purity, but that is far from the truth,” said Héctor Claudio Hernandez, one of the report’s co-authors.

The group said many of the violations have occurred for years, noting that there were nearly 34,000 violations from 2005 to 2015. In 2015 alone, nearly half of more than 400 water systems across the island violated federal health standards, according to the environmental group.

Eli Diaz-Atienza, the newly appointed executive president of Puerto Rico’s Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, told The Associated Press that updated tests show there is currently no lead in the island’s drinking water. He also said the 146 water systems that the agency operates out of the island’s total of 466 systems meet federal standards.

“Right now we understand there’s no threat to the public health of Puerto Rico,” he said, adding that he would provide copies of those tests.

He noted the violations of certain contaminants occurred under previous administrations, but said he was not making excuses for that.

“Just one case of contaminants is a problem for us, and we have to address it responsibly,” he said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said nearly the entire population of 3.4 million people has been served by systems that violated standards regulating the presence of lead and copper. It said all but one of the more than 600 violations were for failure to test for lead or report problems to the public or health authorities.

Those violations could be masking a lead problem, said Erik Olson, co-author of the report and director of the council’s health program.

“Because the testing was not completed, we may never know,” he said. “Basically the entire island is being served by systems that are violating the testing and reporting requirements.”

He said this could mean a range of things, including that government officials failed to test for lead or other contaminants or did not report those test results to the island’s health department.

Diaz-Atienza stressed that internal reports find that Puerto Rico is currently 97.9 percent compliant with required reporting and monitoring.

“We understand that water in Puerto Rico is safe,” he said.

However, nearly 10 percent of the island’s 300-plus water systems that serve small, rural communities that are operated by Puerto Rico’s health department were labeled serious violators in 2011 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Only one of those systems was in compliance in early 2015, the Natural Resources Defense Council said.

A health department spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

The council urged the U.S. territory’s government and a fiscal control board overseeing the administration’s finances to provide money for projects to improve the utility’s infrastructure. Diaz-Atienza said his department is seeking $2.4 billion over a decade to in part fund infrastructure projects.

Puerto Rico’s government, however, is struggling to provide basic services amid a 10-year-old recession. The water and sewer authority holds roughly $5 billion of the island’s overall $73 billion public debt load that the government is seeking to restructure.

In addition, Olson said the administration of U.S President Donald Trump has proposed massive budget cuts that could worsen the problem. He added that the Natural Resources Defense Council is starting to go through the 2016 statistics on Puerto Rico’s water quality, which just recently became available and are incomplete.

“It looks like things are pretty much the same,” he said. “Still widespread violations.”



May 10 2017, 12:12 pm ET

Report: Puerto Rico’s Drinking Water at Brink of Crisis

by Jane C. Timm

Puerto Rico’s drinking water system is on the brink of crisis, an environmental group said Wednesday.

Elevated lead levels, bacteria, chemicals and lax adherence to regulations have created a toxic mix for the American territory’s 3 million-plus citizens, Natural Resources Defense Council Health Director Erik Olson told NBC News, citing his group’s latest research.

“Puerto Rico just clearly has the biggest challenges of any state or territory in the United States,” Olson said.

The drinking water fails lead safety regulations, while 70 percent of the island is served by water that violates federal health standards. The government-run water utility also routinely fails to conduct the required safety tests, while failing the safety tests they do conduct, according to a new NRDC report.

Following the NRDC’s May water safety report, data provided to NBC News showed San Juan, Puerto Rico to be the worst big-city water system in the nation. There, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) had more violations than any other big city, with 64 safety violations, including 24 different health violations, in 2015.

And Olson said he expects the situation to deteriorate further, because President Donald Trump’s has proposed big cuts to Environmental Protection Agency programs that fund the Puerto Rican water system and federal safety enforcement mechanisms.

Children cool off at a water fountain during the Summer Solstice in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico on June 21, 2013. Ricardo Arduengo / AP

“If you’ve got a system that’s in violation repeatedly with the drinking water standards, you’re playing with fire,” Olson said, adding that it could bring on a medical crisis, like the 1993 Cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee that infected 403,000 and killed 69. “That’s exactly what we don’t want to happen in Puerto Rico.”

The data indicates a faulty water treatment process that left behind too much bacteria and carcinogenic chemicals that are also linked to birth defects, as well as aging pipes that contaminated the water with lead and copper. The same utility that provides the island with water manages the sewage system, too, and leaky pipes likely lead to cross-contamination, Olson said.

After the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency sued PRASA and concluded in 2015 they had been dumping six million gallons of sewage into waterways untreated daily, PRASA agreed to invest millions to make big upgrades to the sewage system. The water system, however, isn’t slated for the kind of repairs it needs.

“Puerto Rico is in such an economic crisis,” said lawyer and environmental activist Hiram Ramirez, whose work focuses on toxic landfills that may also undermine water safety. “The environmental problems — people don’t have [water] on their short list of problems in Puerto Rico. We focus on the debt, health, and education …The government’s not paying attention.”

Years after the nation was outraged by lead contaminates affecting nearly 100,000 residents in Flint, Michigan’s water system, one of America’s neediest places is largely overshadowed by both mainland infrastructure problems and the territory’s economic woes. It’s the kind of “crumbling” infrastructure Trump railed against on the campaign trail and vowed to fix, but there’s no plan to combat the unsafe water filling millions of Americans’ faucets there.

“It’s an out of sight and out of mind problem for most Americans,” Olson said of water system problems facing America. But it “poses very real public health risks, especially to vulnerable people like young children, elderly, and the immune compromised.”

Ramirez believes that because Puerto Rico is a territory — lacking the funding and representation that comes along with statehood, or the ability to tax like an independent nation — its citizens are especially vulnerable.

“Look what happened in Flint, Michigan. The EPA got involved. It took awhile, but I mean, they got involved. In Puerto Rico, they know what’s going on,” he said. “They just turn a blind eye.”

The EPA didn’t respond to queries about Puerto Rico’s potential loss of funding, instead blaming Obama for problems with America’s water systems.

“Unfortunately, this is an area in which the past administration failed,” an EPA spokesman said. “Administrator Pruitt is committed to helping modernize our country’s outdated water infrastructure in order to ensure we maintain safe drinking water for the more than 300 million people that depend on it daily.”

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