Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. on Monday declared a local State of Emergency for the potable water system on St. Croix as the first step in seeking a national emergency designation by President Joe Biden to address high levels of lead and copper first discovered in parts of the island’s water supply after testing in late September.
A territorial declaration of emergency gives the V.I. government access to local funding to help with the crisis and the ability to freeze prices on commodities such as bottled water, said Bryan, who has directed the Licensing and Consumer Affairs Department to do so for drinking water, water truck haulers, and water filtration products on St. Croix.
It also is a required step before he can seek federal help, said Bryan, who made the local declaration at noon on Monday at the start of the weekly Government House press briefing, which was held an hour earlier than the customary 1 p.m.
“A national declaration of emergency — which is what the most important thing is — is to get the resources of the federal government, where we will also be getting funding, more money for water, the ability to access funds for health testing and the like. Some of the things that are not within our grasp at this point,” he said.
Notably, it will bring financial and technical support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Health and Human Services, which have already been lending their expertise to the problem, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is aiding the V.I. Health Department with its response to those who fear impacts from the lead and copper, said Bryan.
To date, the Health Department has found no evidence of residents harmed by the contaminants, according to Territorial Epidemiologist Dr. Esther Ellis. However, under the local emergency, it will be expanding its health survey of children from infants to six years old, including blood tests for lead and copper, the governor said.
Besides the local declaration, two other steps are required to trigger a national emergency, including proving that the V.I. Water and Power Authority’s efforts have been unsuccessful at preventing components in St. Croix’s water distribution system from leaching heavy materials into the system and that the local government has taken every prudent action to ensure residents have safe water for consumption, according to Bryan.
“Those heavy materials, particularly lead and copper, put us in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act standards for certain parts of the system,” said Bryan, who expressed confidence that a federal declaration would get speedy approval.
St. Croix residents have long been dealing with discolored brown WAPA water coming from their taps, and tests conducted on Sept. 30 and returned to the territory on Oct. 13 revealed levels of lead and copper in 35 of 66 sites that in some cases were hundreds of times above what the EPA deems safe.
Lead levels in one pipe tested at more than 1,340 times the threshold set by the EPA. Another site had 601 times the lead considered an EPA “action level.” Another test site had water with more than 105 times the allowable copper levels. Exposure to either metal at those levels can cause severe, long-lasting health problems, federal officials warn, especially in children.
A Government House advisory against drinking WAPA water remains in place across all of St. Croix, and residents are advised to flush their taps for 10 to 13 minutes before using the water.
WAPA works closely with DPNR to monitor the territory’s water systems, and the Oct. 13 findings “were a surprise to all involved,” said the authority’s CEO, Andrew Smith.
The problem may rest with the chemicals used to treat the water post-production, said Bryan, who noted that tests have confirmed the issue is not at the reverse osmosis plant operated by Seven Seas, which provides the water used by WAPA as well as water haulers who deliver to homes that rely on cisterns.
According to Smith, recent testing performed at the standpipe at the Seven Seas plant found 0.021 parts per million of copper versus the EPA action level of 1.3 parts per million — or 98.4 percent less than the agency stipulates. It contained 0.00294 parts per million of lead versus the EPA action level of 0.015 parts per million, or 80 percent less, he said.
“Adjustments to WAPA’s post-production chemical water treatment can potentially help address this as a source of contamination. WAPA and DPNR continue to work with the EPA on a modified water treatment program, and WAPA is engaged with two outside advisers about guidance to modify its water treatment program,” said Smith.
“There are metal parts in the service lines, and preliminary indications are that the interaction of stagnant water in the service line with the metal parts in the service line may be the source of copper and lead,” said Smith.
“We think the lines going into the house are particularly suspect — the lines that come off the main line and run up to your meter before it gets into your house,” said Bryan. “We’re going out into the community and we’re pulling some of these lines in the affected areas to see if we can test to see if the leaching problem is occurring there,” he said.
“The way out of this will ultimately rest in the $1.2 billion prudent replacement of the water distribution system to ensure that we meet President Biden’s goals of eliminating all traces of lead nationwide,” said Bryan, referring to FEMA funding approved earlier this year for St. Croix. However, Smith has said that process could take 20 years.
As part of the local State of Emergency, Bryan has designated Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion and Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol as the co-incident commanders to coordinate emergency response activities within the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, with VITEMA Director Daryl Jaschen as the territorial coordinating officer.
“WAPA is responsible for creating the path into permanent safety for all the water and water lines,” said Bryan, which includes finding a treatment system that will reduce the levels of lead and copper as well as the turbidity and brown water.
The authority also must implement a sustainable flushing protocol for its water system, “which means we will continue to flush the lines to make sure that we don’t have accumulation of lead, copper or any other materials in the system,” said Bryan.
WAPA also must assess the entire water distribution system for lead and copper, not just the 66 sites tested so far, said Bryan. “The good news about that, we already have been ahead of the ball game,” he said, referring to $32 million in federal funding that was allocated through Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to assess all homes in the Virgin Islands for lead, copper and other particulates that may be contaminating the water.
“We’ve got to get the test kits together and we’ve got to send out a [Request for Proposal] because it is a massive undertaking and beyond the capabilities of WAPA direct,” said Bryan. He also is making available $36 million to expedite the process of replacing the authority’s service lines that have tested above EPA safe drinking water standards.
“We will address this crisis in a sustained and scientific manner,” said Bryan, who added that the problem is affecting a maximum of 3,800 households on St. Croix and that WAPA has begun excavation of service lines to identify and replace any lead and copper components.
The V.I. government also plans a public education campaign on ways to protect against contaminated water, he said.
While people have been calling for the government to distribute water to the affected homes, that is not in the budget, Bryan said, who said filters are a better long-term solution.
“We are going to be looking into buying some of this material and distributing them to those households so we can make sure that these people have options,” said Bryan. “As time goes by — because this is not going to be a one-month process or a two-month process, it is probably six months to several years to totally eradicate this problem — we’ll be looking at different ways” to help those affected, especially households with children or those on fixed incomes, he said, adding that could include giving people a credit on their WAPA bills.
“We’ll be looking into all of those things and bringing those online. This is why the federal declaration is so important because a lot of our money is tied to replacement of the system and replacements of parts, but we don’t have resources to give people free water and the like. Those resources we would have to use our local funds in order to do them. We have about $50 million right now dedicated to eradicating this problem in the Virgin Islands as an immediate address, and then $1.2 billion in terms of getting rid of all the unsafe drinking water,” he said.
“We understand that the challenges being faced are frustrating and for that, we apologize for the inconvenience this has caused our customers. As we navigate this ever-evolving landscape we continue to work to implement solutions alongside the Joint Information Center, or JIC, and Unified Command,” said Smith.
“Just like we tackled the hurricanes, just like we tackled COVID, we are doing this as a team, and as a team we will get through this,” said Bryan.
Two Health Department hotlines are available for residents to call from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, with any concerns regarding health related to water quality. Individuals may call 340-712-6299 on St. Croix and 340-776-1519 on St Thomas-St. John. DPNR also operates a hotline number, 340-514-3666, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Health Department advises the community that testing for lead exposure is available at the Frederiksted Health Center on St. Croix and the East End Medical Center at Tutu Park Mall on St. Thomas.