Drivers stop for water at a spring in Utuado, Puerto Rico, in September 2017. The island had water problems even before Hurricane Maria. Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez / The Washington Post

By Mekela Panditharatne
21 December 2017

(The Washington Post) – 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. [more]

FEMA says most of Puerto Rico has potable water. That can’t be true.



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