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Report: 99.5% of Puerto Rico's population gets water from systems that violated federal standards

"Puerto Rico has a water crisis that is unlike anything in the U.S. mainland." More Than 3.4 million residents served by water systems that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015
10 May 2017 – 12:51 PM EDT
Puerto Rico Crédito: Getty Images

Almost the entire population of Puerto Rico appears to be using tap water from systems that violate federal rules, according to a new report released Wednesday.

“Millions of people, including children and pregnant women, are drawing water from decaying systems that put their health at risk,” said Erik Olson, director of the health program of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which published the report together with El Puente: Enlace Latino de Acción Climática, and Asociación Nacional de Derecho Ambiental (ANDA).

The report, titled “Threats on Tap: Drinking Water Violations in Puerto Rico,” found that in 2015, over two-thirds of the population - more than 2.4 million Puerto Ricans -- were receiving water with unlawfully high levels of contaminants including bacteria, lead and cancer-causing chemicals, or that failed to treat their water to remove risky contaminants.

Other water sources were not being tested at all, raising the scope of the federal violations to 99.5 percent of the island’s population.

More recent data for 2016 found little or change to water quality and testing, a spokesman for NRDC said.

Karim Del Valle, a spokesman for Puerto Rico's Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, said the agency had no immediate comment.

"Puerto Rico has a water crisis that is unlike anything in the U.S. mainland," said David Ortiz, director of El Puente: Enlace Latino de Acción Climática. "The condition of our drinking water is so bad that we have to think about reworking monitoring, treatment and infrastructure," he added.

In the wake of a water quality scandal in Flint, Michigan, the study examined reports by local authorities around the country of violations of water quality standards which are conducted to meet regulations set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Puerto Rico had the worst rate of drinking water violations of any state or territory in the nation in 2015, according to the report.

“This all started with Flint," said Adrianna Quintero, director of Voces Verdes (Green Voices) a Latino advocacy program at NRDC, one of the largest environmental watchdog groups in the country.

"In Flint what they reported looked good but they were under-reporting," said Quintero.

“What we found is that this is really a chronic problem around the country. Puerto Rico is the worst.”

Nationally, the NRDC found that in 2015 alone, there were more than 80,000 reported violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act by community water systems. Nearly 77 million people were served by systems with violations in 2015.

The report estimates that 19.5 million Americans get sick each year from drinking contaminated water.

The problem is partly a lack of proper water treatment as well as ageing pipes and infrastructure, she said. While many consumers drink bottled water they could still be affected while bathing and cooking with unsafe water. “Many times they are drinking this water too,” Quintero said.

Karim Del Valle, a spokesman for Puerto Rico's Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, said the agency had no immediate comment.

The report recommended urgent investment to test and fix drinking water systems to meet federal rules as well as reducing water leaks that are costing millions of dollars.

The authors of the report said the island's current fiscal woes should not be an excuse to address the water safety issues. “Puerto Rico is facing terrible financial burdens, but that doesn’t take away the responsibility of local and federal authorities to protect the health of Puerto Ricans,” said Héctor Claudio Hernández, executive director of ANDA.

Last week Puerto Rico filed a form of bankruptcy though the report's authors said this should not affect federal funding for Enviornmental Health Prpoyection (EPA) standards.

The report is available online including an interactive map.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this article.