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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, May 20, 2024
HomeNewsLocal governmentBills Funding St. Croix Water, St. Thomas Dredging Advanced

Bills Funding St. Croix Water, St. Thomas Dredging Advanced

Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory questions VITEMA Assistant Director Stephen DeBlasio Sr. about plans to provide potable water for people in areas of St. Croix with high lead and copper in their municipal pipes. (Screenshot of V.I. Legislature live stream)

More than 8,500 people living on St. Croix lack safe municipal water, experts estimated in a Senate hearing Tuesday, and although all present agreed on the urgency of the situation, there was still debate on how to best provide temporary government-funded bottled water.

The Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance advanced a bill to allocate $350,000 from the General Fund to provide bottled water and, eventually, filters that remove toxic lead and copper levels. Government officials have known about the contaminated water since Oct. 13, warning Crucians not to drink the water, then eventually shutting off some spigots. Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. asked the White House to declare a federal emergency and declared a local State of Emergency Oct. 30.

Getting free, safe water to people in the “hot zones” — which includes the home of Congressional Delegate Stacey Plaskett — has proven difficult.

Stephen DeBlasio Sr., assistant director of the Virgin Islands Emergency Management Agency, said the $350,000 should be sent to the Property and Procurement Department, which could back vouchers or coupons for 3,431 affected households. This system would allow Water and Power Authority customers with unusable water to buy what best suits their household, DeBlasio said.

A second, less desirable plan would issue those households gift cards for bottled water, and a third plan would be to physically distribute bottled water.

“We believe that the voucher/coupon system is the most equitable and the most expedient solution until the water filters being procured by WAPA become available on-island and are distributed,” he said. “This method also allows us to retain and track the vouchers and money spent because the booklets will be serially counted and on material that is difficult to reproduce.”

Even the less labor-intensive voucher or coupon system would require a staffed distribution system that VITEMA, Property and Procurement, and the Health and Human Services Department had yet to figure out, DeBlasio said.

Committee Chair Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory and others bemoaned the slow response and said waiting a week for vouchers to be printed was not good enough.

“The water need to get to the people now so we don’t have time for any vouchers,” Frett-Gregory said. “Buy the water; distribute the water.”

A voucher system isn’t as easy as printing tickets, she said. Businesses providing the bottled water are going to want to be assured they’ll be paid.

“There’s a lot to contemplate and we don’t have contemplation time. We’ve got to get this done,” Frett-Gregory said. “We’ve got to wrap this up by the end of this week.”

DeBlasio said setting up several distribution centers and arranging staff was more difficult and costly than printing vouchers, which may take less than a week to print and hand out.

“I’m not going to dispute the fact that it would be nice to have soldiers on the ground handing out water but in the discussions we’ve had with the groups that have met and discussed this, it just seems, in collaboration with Property and Procurement, that this would be a very easy and quick thing to do and not cost as much as having to set up separate distribution points,” he said.

“If it came down to physical distribution of water, then the National Guard would be activated,” DeBlasio said. “Our reasoning for going toward the coupons is that Property and Procurement has assured us that the mechanism is already in place.”

Sen. Dwayne DeGraff, a former police officer, suggested the Virgin Islands National Guard should have been mobilized when Bryan declared a State of Emergency. DeGraff said all three options suggested by VITEMA should be started immediately. Physical distribution centers could be set up while vouchers and gift cards were being printed.

“The National Guard has a water purification unit. They could provide water. The National Guard could assist with distribution and getting that done,” he said. “Put these things in place and the money going to come.”

Sen. Novelle Francis Jr., a former police commissioner, said government was good at creating bureaucracies that can lag behind swift humanitarian needs.

“Time is of the essence,” Francis said. “We have to remove the barriers. We have to remove the impediments. It was, I think, Oct. 17 we first heard the results. We heard a declaration Oct. 30. It’s now Nov. 7. I’m getting calls daily about water.”

If vouchers are the best option, they should be printed immediately, he said.

“It seems to me, back in my days, all we had to do is call out for volunteers and we had trucks that appeared and we were able to disperse those trucks, get them moving and get them out,” Francis said. “This is not rocket science.”

The National Guard, the Fire Department, and other government agencies were able to help, he said.

“I don’t mind hanging up my suit for a couple of days and putting on my jeans pants and go out there,” Francis said. “This really calls for our community to see our humanitarian efforts.”

Sen. Ray Fonseca wondered if the problem was localized only in St. Croix as St. Thomas’ pipes were also installed in the 1960s and 1970s and carry water from Seven Seas Water Group.

“Being that the lines are the similar age and we get the water from Seven Seas, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that St. Thomas district has similar problems,” Fonseca said. “We’re going to have to get a testing schedule.”

Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said more than 300 small children were tested for lead annually in the territory. No St. Thomas Head Start children tested positive in 2023. Four tested positive on St. Croix, Encarnacion said. One St. Thomas child tested positive in 2022.

“I can say we are going to be testing zero to six in St. Croix and we can expand our plans for St. Thomas if needed,” she said.

WAPA and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources would better know what levels of lead or copper were in the water once testing was complete, Encarnacion said.

Dr. Esther Ellis, the territorial epidemiologist, said as of Monday, the Health Department had tested 77 children under six. One child’s results came back positive for elevated lead levels but needed further testing. The tests carry a three percent chance for false-positive results, Ellis said. No amount of lead is considered safe in the human body as it can cause developmental delays. Boiling water will not remove the harmful metals. Cistern water is not affected so long as the cistern was not filled from a WAPA line.

DeBlasio said while teams were exploring causes for the contaminants and even replacing sections of pipe, others were exploring home water filters that could remove the lead and copper at the faucet, speaking with multiple vendors.

Earlier in the hearing, the committee forwarded to the Rules and Judiciary Committee a bill allocating $17 million to further dredge St. Thomas Harbor, allowing for larger cruise ships to use the West Indian Company dock. WICO officials said the dock’s single-sided design and the harbor’s narrow turning basin caused them to turn away some ships recently.

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