The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday it has developed a preliminary list of recommended actions the V.I. government should take to rid St. Croix’s municipal water system of lead contamination and that during recent testing at 11 household faucets, three of 119 samples came back with slightly elevated levels of the heavy metal.
The recommended actions include educating residents on steps they themselves can take at home to reduce exposure to lead, as well as improving the corrosion control treatment of the water system and replacing components that contain lead in the distribution system, the agency said.
Thursday’s report said that of 119 samples collected at 11 homes on St. Croix, three showed levels above the EPA’s 15 parts per billion (ppb) Lead Action Level. Two of those samples were from the first draw closest to the tap (28.8 ppb; 18.4 ppb); the third was from water closer to the meter (23.2 ppb), it said.
Those levels are far below the alarming numbers discovered at 36 of 65 sites when the EPA, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the University of the Virgin Islands and the V.I. Water and Power Authority conducted tests in September in a bid to determine the cause of persistent brown/reddish water coming from household taps on St. Croix.
At that time, lead levels in one pipe tested at more than 1,340 times the threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency. 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.
The discovery prompted Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. to declare a local State of Emergency on Oct. 30 that was recently extended through Dec. 29, and on Nov. 19 President Joe Biden declared the matter a federal emergency, freeing up aid to help address the problem through Jan. 23.
However, subsequent sampling data analyzed by EPA experts indicate the levels of lead at household taps are far lower than those found at the distribution meters, where the September tests were conducted to find the source of the brown water, the agency noted.
During the most recent testing that returned three positive results, the two first-draw results, closest to the tap, indicate the lead is likely stemming from the local plumbing within the faucet or the aerator; the third result, closer to the distribution meter, indicates the lead is likely stemming from the lead plumbing components in and around the distribution meter, the EPA said. The home with elevated lead closer to the distribution meter had a stagnation time of four days, versus the other homes with a six-hour stagnation, which may account for the lead levels in that sample, it said.
A final report on the sequential sampling study will be available by mid-December, the agency said.
“EPA takes seriously any instance of lead or potential for lead in drinking water, and I commend the U.S. Virgin Islands government and WAPA for taking immediate action to advise people not to consume the water, to collect more samples, begin replacing components in the system and develop a voucher program,” for residents to get free bottled water, said EPA Regional Administrator Lisa F. Garcia.
“What we initially saw from samples collected in September showed very high levels of lead. While those samples were not from a part of the water system that is normally sampled, EPA and the Virgin Islands government had a responsibility to take decisive action and investigate the situation further,” she said.
Garcia added, “The levels of lead we have been seeing in subsequent sampling, including our detailed sequential sampling study, are much lower than those initial samples. But they do show some lead. This confirms the need to ensure that proper steps are being taken by the water provider and by consumers to protect people and reduce the potential exposure to lead.”
After examining the results of the November sequential sampling study and considering data generated from sampling since September, EPA is working closely with the V.I. government to lay a path to lift the recommendation that people on St. Croix not consume WAPA water from the distribution system, it said.
“EPA has been working with the U.S. Virgin Islands from the very beginning to narrow down our understanding of what the sources of the high levels of lead were, and we feel we have sufficient information to guide the next steps,” Garcia added.
Levels of lead that were found at the private home taps during EPA’s sampling study are consistent with levels seen in other communities across the country. While no level of lead is safe, there are practical steps that people can take to reduce their exposure to lead from their household water, the agency said. These include flushing their pipes before consuming water, regularly cleaning their aerators (faucet screen) to remove sediment and debris, and properly using and maintaining a water filter certified to remove lead.
Before residents begin to consume water from the WAPA distribution system again, EPA is requesting that USVI regulatory agencies and WAPA develop and implement a comprehensive plan to educate the public about steps they can take to reduce their exposure to lead in drinking water.
Implementation of this plan will help reduce the risk of lead in the drinking water and allow residents to resume consumption of the water if they follow guidelines provided in the educational campaign, the agency said.
EPA also recommends that WAPA address the lead from the distribution system, including optimizing corrosion control on St. Croix and replacing components containing lead in the distribution system. The territory is already beginning to undertake EPA’s recommendations, it said.
The local and subsequent federal emergency declarations are focused on lead. While the red/brown discoloration issues with the water may not indicate an immediate health threat, EPA recognizes that these issues are still serious and need attention, the report stated.
Some of the measures being undertaken to reduce lead both by consumers and by the system may also help the red and brown discoloration and EPA will continue to consult with the U.S Virgin Islands to address that problem, it added.
EPA will hold a hybrid public meeting to update the public and will post the details of this meeting on its website. For more information and for further updates, visit the agency’s U.S. Virgin Islands drinking water website.