Puerto Ricans are waiting hours for water from an area contaminated with industrial chemicals. Photo: CNN

By John D. Sutter
14 October 2017

Dorado, Puerto Rico (CNN) – Jose Luis Rodriguez waited in line Friday to fill plastic jugs in the back of his pickup truck with water for drinking, doing the dishes and bathing.

But there is something about this water Rodriguez didn't know: It was being pumped to him by water authorities from a federally designated hazardous-waste site, CNN learned after reviewing Superfund documents and interviewing federal and local officials.
Rodriguez, 66, is so desperate for water that this news didn't startle him.

"I don't have a choice," he said. "This is the only option I have."

More than three weeks after Hurricane Maria ravaged this island, more than 35% of the island's residents -- American citizens -- remain without safe drinking water.

It's clear some residents are turning to potentially risky sources to get by.

Friday afternoon, CNN watched workers from the Puerto Rican water utility, Autoridad de Acueductos y Alcantarillados, or AAA, distribute water from a well at the Dorado Groundwater Contamination Site, which was listed in 2016 as part of the federal Superfund program for hazardous waste cleanup.

Residents like Rodriguez filled small bottles from a hose and piled them in their vehicles. Large trucks with cylindrical tanks on their backs carried the water to people elsewhere. Some of the trucks carried the name of the municipality of Dorado. Others simply were labeled with the words "Agua Potable," Spanish for potable water.

In announcing the addition of the Dorado site to the Superfund program, the US Environmental Protection Agency says the area was polluted with industrial chemicals, including tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene, which "can have serious health impacts including damage to the liver and increasing the risk of cancer," according to the EPA.

It's unclear whether there are public health risks from this particular well, however.

The EPA said it plans to do testing in the area over the weekend. […]

Martyn Smith, a professor of toxicology at the University of California, Berkeley, told CNN the levels of PCE and chloroform would be essentially safe for human consumption. "I wouldn't have any problem in drinking this water if these were the only chemicals in it," he said. The problem with Superfund sites, he said, is that you don't know what else is present.

"I've never seen this before," he said, referring to the idea a Superfund site would be used as a source of public drinking water. Boiling the water, he said, would reduce possible contamination. And it's somewhat understandable, Smith added, that people in Puerto Rico would turn to possibly questionable drinking water sources given the scope of the crisis.

Still, a Superfund site -- a location with known health risks -- is just about the last place a person would want to turn to find drinking water, even in a crisis, said Erik Olson, head of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

"There are thousands of chemicals out there that could be in a Superfund site and only a relative handful are covered by standards," he said. "What I would be worried about is stuff that isn't showing up on EPA's drinking water standards. It just sounds really risky to me to be serving water out of a Superfund well." [more]

Desperate Puerto Ricans are drinking water from a hazardous-waste site

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