Government House Seeks to Soothe St. Croix Water Fears

Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Jean Pierre Oriol, Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion, host Clint Ferris, and Water and Power Authority CEO Andrew Smith discuss elevated levels of lead and copper in St. Croix water during a Government House public relations broadcast on Tuesday night. (Screenshot of broadcast)

Government officials sought Tuesday night to reassure Virgin Islanders concerned about toxic levels of lead and copper found in some St. Croix municipal water. In an hour-long broadcast from Government House, Water and Power Authority CEO Andrew Smith, Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Jean Pierre Oriol, and Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion outlined what was being done to combat the problem and dispel misinformation.

Water vouchers are on the way:

Officials estimate more than 8,500 people living on St. Croix lack safe municipal water because of lead and copper content. While cistern water is generally free from these heavy metals, many of these people — like Congressional Delegate Stacey Plaskett — may rely on WAPA water alone.

Emergency response officials disclosed a plan Nov. 7 to issue vouchers for free bottled water to these 3,431 affected households. Senators in the Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance expressed skepticism about the plan, urging direct water distribution points. But representatives of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency said a voucher system was the fastest, easiest, most accountable, and cheapest.

Smith said the vouchers should be available and distributed within a few days. Filters meant to remove lead had also been ordered and were on the way, Smith said, as were home lead testing kits.

“Once we receive them they will be distributed to customers,” he said, adding a robust community outreach will alert residents how to get the vouchers. “You have to be a WAPA customer to receive a voucher, right? You also have to have used WAPA water at least in the last six months,” he said.

Discolored water and lead levels are sort of related, sort of not:

Lead and copper contamination was discovered while looking for the source of red and brown water coming from people’s facets, Oriol said.

The water was not discolored because of lead and copper but because it had sat in old, corroding iron pipes. These same aged pipes were to blame for elevated lead and copper levels — however, it was entirely possible to have no metals in discolored water and dangerous levels of metals in clear water. One did not indicate the other.

“When we ran the results of those tests, we were not anticipating to find lead. I think we were ready to say, based on the cast iron, that we would have found iron concentrations in the water — particularly during the summertime when we had low levels of water. That meant the water is sitting directly on the pipes themselves, there’s less water pressure to flow. And that’s why you saw more concentrated iron and a darker brown or red-brown in the water this summer. It took us all back because we really don’t have that many lead components in the system,” Oriol said.

WAPA and other agencies took action:

“This is really an all-hands effort,” Smith said, saying WAPA, DPNR, the Health Department, VITEMA, and federal partners swung into action. Warnings were issued and pipes were flushed.

While Smith is correct that WAPA notified its customers of the elevated lead and copper levels within 24 hours of its discovery, it was a muted announcement. The Environmental Protection Agency’s letter to WAPA about the water’s extraordinary lead and copper content was dated Oct. 12. WAPA officials said they received the letter Oct. 13 and conferred with DPNR before releasing a statement Oct. 14 titled “Authority Collaborates for Water Quality Enhancements with Additional Technical Assistance.” Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s team said he was not briefed until Oct. 16. Bryan addressed the issue Oct. 17, issuing a “no drink” advisory. He later declared a local state of emergency, Oct. 30, and asked the White House to declare the water issue a federal emergency Nov. 9, Oriol said.

Encarnacion said the Education Department and other agencies have been directly involved in solving the lead problem.

“In order for us to make this happen, we can’t do it by ourselves,” Encarnacion said. While the Health Department is responsible for living up to the Clean Water Act, WAPA and DPNR look at the source while Health looks at the end user, she said. “We look at water closer to the home, closer to the children.”

Children and pregnant women are being tested:

The Health Department has set out to test all of St. Croix’s children six and under and pregnant women for elevated lead levels — which can cause severe developmental problems in young people, Encarnacion said.

No amount of lead is safe, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The EPA allows for up to 15 parts per billion before requiring mitigation action. The worst water on St. Croix tested at more than 20,100 parts per billion lead — 1,340 times federal limits — and 137,000 copper — 105 times federal limits.

Of 118 children tested for lead exposure as of Monday, seven have come back positive, she said. But these results are pending definitive confirmation.

Anyone who wants to be tested for lead, regardless of age, can have it done for free by the Health Department, Encarnacion said.

WAPA’s identified likely cause of lead:

After additional sampling, investigators have identified service lines that are the probable culprit for the elevated lead and copper levels, Smith said. These smaller pipes, like smaller roads away from commonly traveled highways, are old and less often used. WAPA has received quotes from contractors to replace the lines in affected areas. Oriol said some of St. Croix’s water infrastructure dates back to the 1950s. Replacing older pipes with modern PVC pipes could give the system close to another century of life.

Removing and replacing the smaller lines would be followed by a long-term plan to remove and replace all of St. Croix’s water infrastructure, Smith said.

“To be fair, it will take time. I mean, replacing an entire island’s water infrastructure is not a one-week or one-month process,” he said. “We will also target those efforts to the most affected areas.”

He said engineering is already being organized but could take 10 or so years to be finalized.

In the meantime, WAPA and DPNR were adjusting water-treatment chemicals used to reduce the amount of metal that might leach into the water.

“Sort of like taking Pepto Bismol when you don’t feel well, that coats our system. That can have a more near-term impact on this,” Smith said. “There have been a lot of initiatives that have been undertaken, so when people say WAPA is not responding, I think that’s unfair to the men and women of WAPA.”

The St. Croix lead problem is different from Flint, Michigan:

The United States’ most notorious municipal water lead exposure in recent years is Flint, Michigan, where local authorities had been warned about the danger but were slow to react, Oriol said.

“The city of Flint was cited for Safe Drinking Water Act violations almost 15 months before they declared a state of emergency. They had significant deficiencies in meeting the Safe Drinking Water Act requirements and yet continued to do business,” Oriol said. “We have also been proactive in attempting to rectify the situation by confirming what our hypothesis is. It’s identifying the component parts that probably have lead in them. And so we’ve gone already to these locations, done excavation, tested them for lead concentration, and now, as CEO Smith mentioned, saying, we’re not going to try and excavate everything one by one. He’s issuing an RFP for all the 36 locations we sampled. All of those lines to be excavated, to be reviewed, for those components to be swapped out. We do not have a Flint, Michigan on our hands.”

Rather than rushing in and digging up all of St. Croix’s water pipes, data is driving the government response, Smith said. It started with the worst affected.

Smith added that, unlike Flint, St. Croix’s source water was not a problem.

“Our source water comes through Seven Seas Water who makes it through reverse osmosis. That’s our only source of drinking water in the territory — both St. Thomas and St. Croix,” Smith said. “The water at Seven Seas had been tested. It’s fine.”

Running water continues to help:

Because Flint’s water was problematic from the source, flushing the line did not help, Smith said. On St. Croix, running the tap for 10 minutes brought lead levels down to below EPA thresholds, if not to undetectable levels, he said.

It was less than an exact science. It remained somewhat unclear how often a line might need to be flushed and to what extent. Oriol, Smith, and Encarnacion also acknowledge the potential impracticality of flushing a faucet for 10 minutes before every use.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that seven children on St. Croix have tested positive in initial finger-prick blood tests for lead exposure. Those results have still to be confirmed by veinous blood draws, the Health Department said.