Puerto Rico has the least safe water of any state or territory
After Hurricanes Maria and Irma hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, finding and distributing drinkable water immediately became one of the islands’ residents main concerns. Lack of access to relief supplies and donations after the storms, especially water, has been a controversial issue, since it was recently discovered that millions of water bottles were abandoned on a Puerto Rican airport tarmac and were never handed out to storm survivors. Although the hurricanes may have compounded this problem, having access to clean water is not a new worry for Puerto Rico’s residents, as the territory’s drinkable water was already deemed to be the worst of all the US states and territories.
A 2017 report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDF) reveals that in 2015, 99.5% of Puerto Rico’s population was served by community water systems in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), and between 2005 to 2015, more than 33,000 SDWA violations were reported. The report also states that a total of 201 out of 406 water systems committed 545 health-based violations in 2015. Some of the contaminants contained in these community water systems used by more than 69% of Puerto Rico’s population include
volatile organic compounds, total coliform bacteria, and disinfection byproducts. Especially troubling, is that similar to environmental water crises in cities like Flint, Michigan and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 2015 there were 607 total violations of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Lead and Copper Rule in Puerto Rico. Director of the NRDC Health Program and co-author of the report, Erik Olson, told reporters that problems also include “poor enforcement by states and territorial governments and the EPA, under-reporting of violations, and frankly, weaknesses in drinking water standards for contaminant like arsenic and lead.”
To make matters more complicated, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), which operates water and wastewater systems, was under several court-enforced agreements to end sewage discharges from degraded wastewater plants that violated the Clean Water Act. Before Hurricane Maria, PRASA stated that it would need to invest $2.4 billion over the next decade to fix these ongoing issues, and since the majority of its water and wastewater treatment infrastructure was damaged by the storms, that number is surely much higher now. Concerning the issue of transparency, in spring of 2017, the Puerto Rico Government Development Bank (GDB), received a hotline complaint from the EPA regarding financial irregularities with Puerto Rico’s Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, and therefore the OIG conducted an audit based on a reported complaint that the revolving funds had a combined balance of approximately $188 million at the Puerto Rico Government Development Bank. The complaint also alleged that the bank did not have the funds to honor the balance, and the EPA was worried about the outstanding balance and the potential misuse of the funds. The audit eventually confirmed that the $188 million of state revolving funds were not available for use because the GDB did not have the assets (cash) to honor the balance. Although the audit did state that the agencies investigated did not intentionally misuse government funds, much like the citizens of Flint, Michigan who were deliberately misled by state government officials about the safety of the city’s drinking water, with little trust in the government’s ability to protect its citizens health and safety, the people of Puerto Rico have learned to look to their fellow citizens and scientists for help.
Marta Rivera, a resident of the city of Arecibo, had her house completely destroyed by Hurricane Maria and blames her cancer on water contaminated by the storm. Rivera states:“The water comes out of the tap white, and sometimes dark and dirty, with particles in it… Me, my son, my aunt and even the doctor here have got sick in some way. It’s made me a little paranoid. Traumatized.” Arecibo became a Superfund site in the summer of 2017, as it is in close proximity to a former battery processing facility that contained corrosive acids. After hurricane Maria devastated the site, residents had serious cause for concern, even though an EPA spokesman said there were “no indications that contaminated material left the facility.” One may understand why these residents have reason to doubt the initial EPA assessments of the facility though, as it was eventually revealed that a top EPA official knew as early as 6 months before the official public announcement about the lack of corrosion controls in Flint’s water supply, likely contributing to some avoidable lead poisoning of Flint’s citizens.
Ben Bostick, a water quality expert at Columbia University, tested water quality near three Superfund sites, including the battery plant, and after taking more than 100 samples from residents, he discovered that pollution levels were “surprisingly low.” Another scientist, Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, a chemistry professor from the University of Colorado and former resident of Puerto Rico, has also led two rounds of initial water testing. Rosario-Ortiz and his team went door to door gathering bottles of water from people’s bathroom sinks to test for bacteria, and the results indicated something else– possible lead contamination significant enough to warrant further study. The number of samples was small, and Rosario-Ortiz is applying for a grant to fund a larger study to see if the lead contamination was isolated, or part of a much larger problem.
The future of Puerto Rico’s damaged infrastructure is still unclear, as the territory is laden with heavy debt that is still being evaluated and restructured. Regardless of economic stresses, future rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico must address both water contamination and the lack of government transparency and advocacy for its residents’ safety.