At this point, Puerto Rico’s water troubles sound like a broken record. The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest update on the island post-Hurricane Maria, released on Friday, warned residents to be careful when playing in or touching the water in Puerto Rico’s rivers, streams, and oceans, because raw sewage could be entering it.
More than 100 days have passed since Hurricane Maria made landfall on the U.S. territory back in September, yet the situation continues to be dire for these U.S. citizens. Energy generation isn’t at full capacity, and mental health is suffering as a result.
Then there’s the water. About 96 percent of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority’s more than 1 million active customers have potable water, according to the Puerto Rican government and according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 94 percent of sewage treatment plants are up and running on generator power throughout the island. Per data provided by the EPA, this should include all of the island’s 51 wastewater treatment plants, and 112 out of the 115 drinking water plants operating.
But the EPA is still recommending that people take additional precautions when coming into contact with water bodies “out of an abundance of caution.” A similar recommendation was issued in the EPA’s Hurricane Maria update from December 18, but not in updates from late November.
In general, plants with power are able to stop unfiltered waste from running into waterways. EPA press officer David Bryan told Earther that although some plants are now running, they’re still experiencing issues where sewage is escaping. Some of these issues could include anything from a pipe rupture to a blockage. “Now, the [EPA] has to go and check every [plant] one by one,” he told Earther.
The island remains on a boil-water advisory, which poses additional challenges for residents struggling with intermittent or non-existent power.
“A lot of people have water in their plumbing, but no one can drink it,” Verónica González Rodríguez, who volunteers with Puerto Rico’s National Association on Environmental Rights and focuses on clean air and water, told Earther in Spanish. “The people who have water but don’t have power might not even be able to boil it.”
Ultimately, water can’t be considered 100 percent safe until power returns to the entire island, said González. Plants require energy to treat the water, and the state departments need energy to run the labs that test water quality.
“While the electricity problem goes unfixed, no solution is in sight,” she told Earther.
There are also around 76,000 residents using drinking water that comes from wells, and surface water outside the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority’s system. All of these people are at risk.
Contaminated water is dangerous for human health, whether it’s drunk or bathed in. In November, the Puerto Rican government recorded five official deaths from leptospirosis, a bacterial infection spread through contaminated water. Given the criticism regarding the government’s official death count, that number might be much higher.
In October, CNN exposed the fact that some islanders were drinking water drawn from wells at Superfund sites, the nation’s most polluted areas. The EPA said that water met federal drinking water standards, but it’s hard to completely trust an agency that told Flint, Michigan, the same thing, even when it knew its water was full of dangerous lead.
Contaminated water has been on the Puerto Rican government’s radar since before the storm. In 2006, the Puerto Rican water authority was charged with 15 felony counts for violating the Clean Water Act, after nine sanitary wastewater treatment plants and five drinking water treatment plants were found illegally discharging pollution into waterways. This settlement cost the authority $9 million, the largest fine any water authority had paid for violating the Clean Water Act at the time, per the EPA.
History has shown that when the government can do better, it hasn’t. Hurricane Maria has only made that worse—and the Puerto Rican people are the ones who suffer.