Outlook | Perspective
December 21, 2017 at 1:19 PM
The weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico brought remarkable images of people desperate to find clean water, drinking from hazardous Superfund sites and thrusting containers under makeshift spigots on the sides of mountains.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, this particular problem has subsided now, more than three months after the storm: FEMA's official statistics on Puerto Rico, which rely on data provided by the territory, suggest that 95 percent of Puerto Ricans now have access to potable water.
That just isn't possible.
I'm a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where I specialize in toxics and drinking water. Before Hurricane Maria, I worked with local groups in Puerto Rico on drinking-water contamination on the island. We put out a report in May showing that in 2015, 99.5 percent of Puerto Ricans — virtually all residents — were served by water sources that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. These violations included contamination, failure to properly treat the water, and failure to conduct water testing or to report as required by federal rules. A substantial majority, 69.4 percent of the population, was drawing tap water that had unlawfully high levels of contaminants such as coliform bacteria, disinfection byproducts and volatile organic compounds, or that had not been treated in accordance with federal standards.
Even as mainland coverage of water access and quality issues in Puerto Rico has receded, overshadowed by chatter about the latest political crises and tax breaks in Washington, the hurricane has made an already bad water situation far worse. And by veiling the true extent of the damage, FEMA's misleading statistics on water are exacerbating the problems.
First, it's important to clarify what "potable water" means. FEMA draws its "potable water" data from the Puerto Rican government's numbers on water service restoration. But in legal parlance, potability refers to something beyond just access: compliance with federal, state and territorial safety standards for drinking water. Two months after Maria hit the island, Puerto Ricans were saying that odorous, discolored and ill-tasting water was flowing from their taps. The NRDC recently obtained the results of tests performed by the Puerto Rico Department of Health from the Environmental Protection Agency showing that bacterial contamination in tap water was a potentially widespread problem in Puerto Rico as late as November.
This isn't surprising: Puerto Rico has old and leaky water systems; about half its water is lost in distribution each year. That vulnerability makes drinking water especially susceptible to contamination in the wake of an extreme weather event like a hurricane.
Second, power problems are water problems by another name. And a substantial portion of the island is still in the dark. According to the government of Puerto Rico, 34 percent of the territory, more than 1 million people, remains without power. Power and water are intimately connected: Water treatment plants are hooked to the electricity grid and rely on consistent energy. When treatment plants and pumping stations are propped up with generators, power can — and does — fail, resulting in frequent water shutoffs, as the island's water authority indicates. Local officials in Puerto Rico say their water service typically goes in and out.
There are numerous accounts of waterborne disease and bacterial illness in Puerto Rico. Leptospirosis, an often deadly bacterial disease, has seen a significant uptick in cases. Whether these illnesses are caused by floodwaters, drinking water or other sources of water exposure, they are a cause for serious concern.
Puerto Rico needs federal help to fix its water, beyond repairing the hurricane damage. The local energy utility's debts are well documented; the malaise of its water authority is less known. Last year, the EPA closed off vital federal funds for water infrastructure upgrades on the island, a potential lifeline for the ailing utility, because the local agency couldn't pay back previous loans. Meanwhile, the government of Puerto Rico has said that the majority of its water infrastructure was affected by the hurricane.
Puerto Rico's historic record of noncompliance with drinking-water standards, its water authority's beleaguered budget and the fragility of its aging water distribution systems mean FEMA's claim that most residents are receiving potable water is at best misleading — and at worst, simply untrue. Most Puerto Ricans weren't getting consistently potable water before the storm pummeled the island's already strained infrastructure.
But FEMA's disaster relief statistics are important: They're typically how Congress judges how much money it needs to appropriate after major disasters, which means they will influence what lawmakers are willing to put into Puerto Rico's water infrastructure and the island's rebuilding more generally.
Such misrepresentations can mask major health threats and hamstring a robust federal response. Puerto Ricans deserve better. They deserve safe and accessible water.
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