Government officials in the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) are seeking a national emergency declaration to address the high levels of copper and lead found in St. Croix’s potable water system.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) originally tested water on the island for sargassum algae but discovered high levels of copper and lead that could be attributed to leaching from old or unused pipes. Customers had complained about dark brown and orange water for several weeks before the EPA released its report. While water stored in tanks is considered safe, Governor Albert Bryan (D) issued an advisory warning against drinking, bathing, or using any water from the Water and Power Authority (WAPA). Flushing the water system could reduce levels though scientists found trace levels of the metals. Officials on the island conducted a retest on the sites of the WAPA potable water distribution system after flushing the system but found that the levels of heavy metals remain above the 15 parts per billion limit set by the EPA.
FEMA approved $1.2 billion to replace St. Croix’s water distribution system, in line with President Joe Biden’s infrastructure laws that include eliminating lead in the country’s water. WAPA officials estimated it would take 20 years to replace the old piping, leading the USVI government to ask the federal government for aid. Bryan declared a State of Emergency for the water system on October 30, beginning the process of receiving a national emergency designation and asking for federal help. In a press conference, Bryan said a national emergency declaration “is what the most important thing is — is to get the resources of the federal government, where we will also be getting funding, more money for water, the ability to access funds for health testing and the like. Some of the things that are not within our grasp at this point.”
Federal organizations would provide funding and technical resources, along with an increased testing capacity. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), EPA, and the US Department of Health and Human Services have already started to provide resources to the territory. The Centers for Disease Control is helping the USVI Health Department to test and care for individuals impacted by lead and copper levels. Still, officials have not detected significant levels in individuals who used the water prior to the EPA report.
Bryan acknowledged that the funding has not helped with providing residents of St. Croix with safe water. In another statement, he added, “This is why the federal declaration is so important because a lot of our money is tied to replacement of the system and replacements of parts, but we don’t have resources to give people free water and the like. Those resources we would have to use our local funds in order to do them.” The territory currently has the $1.2 billion plan and $52 million from Clean Water Act funds to address the water system but lacks funding for providing water in the interim.
Delegate Stacey Plaskett (D) released a statement expressing deep concern for the continued water crisis. She added that the water infrastructure legislation has provided significant resources to replace the water infrastructure, including old pipes containing these heavy metals. According to Plaskett, the EPA released $43 million in grants for clean water infrastructure. Another possible source of funding is the $500 million grant the USVI received as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.
Plaskett highlighted, “the various provisions […] are resources that we can use to address an untenable present problem. I, like many people on St. Croix and in the Virgin Islands, am disturbed and concerned about the water issues we currently face. It will take all of us working calmly and vigilantly, taking in new ideas and strategies, both short and long-term, to mitigate this water crisis while we find a permanent solution.”