Educating Public Critical for Safe Drinking Water, Experts Tell Seminar

Joseffa Torres-Olivo spoke at Thursday's workshop on water quality. (Source photo)
Joseffa Torres-Olivo spoke at Thursday’s workshop on water quality. (Source photo)

Educating the public about the current regulations in drinking water is crucial to ensuring water safety in the territory, experts told a gathering at a week-long workshop.

Joseffa Torres-Olivo, the Puerto Rico/V.I. district director of Resources for Communities and People Solutions, spoke at the Charles Turnbull Regional Library on St. Thomas during the workshop organized by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources. Topics covered during the week included the impact of septic systems, rural sustainable utility management, and drinking water.

According to Torres-Olivo, the goal of the weeklong seminar in the Virgin Islands a week ago was “a matter of educating people to know they need to know the information” and “understanding requirements and why people need to comply.”

Resources for Communities and People Solutions is a non-profit organization that, since its inception in 1969, has helped individuals, families, communities and small business owners with a wide range of housing and other services.

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RCAP Solutions water specialist Luis Melendez-Fox taught those in attendance about water regulation laws and what type of disinfection process works best in the territory.

The Interim Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule of 1998 was put in place to “maintain disinfection but eliminate byproducts from the treatment process,” Melendez-Fox said.

Stage one of the law was a “proactive way to guarantee reduction in byproducts,” Melendez-Fox said. This stage made it mandatory to monitor trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, both found to be harmful.

Before the law, drinking water systems would be evaluated based on an average of trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids in the complete water system. The new requirement is that the test take place at multiple locations along the system to determine that the water is safe on each part of the line.

Another long-term effect of the rule is that it is applicable to every water system and not just those that serve more than 10,000 people.

Luis Melendez-Fox explains a slide on chlorine gas during his presentation on Thursday at the Charles Turnbull Library. (Source photo)
Luis Melendez-Fox explains a slide on chlorine gas during his presentation on Thursday at the Charles Turnbull Library. (Source photo)

Melendez-Fox stressed that onsite generation of hypochlorites was the best way for the territory to produce chlorine gas to disinfect water.

The fact that water and power are delivered through the same agency – WAPA – gives the U.S. Virgin Islands advantage in that regard, he said. Both are required for the process, so there is no need to transport the chlorine gas, which is potentially dangerous

Chlorine gas is the cheapest option as compared to other alternatives, he said. The process takes three pounds of salt, 2 kilowatts of electricity and 15 gallons of water to produce the hypochlorite solution.

Chloramines were one of the disinfectant alternatives but it is not suitable for the tropics because the warm weather causes a reaction that produces a foul odor.

Melendez- Fox was impressed with small systems in the residential communities in the Virgin Islands saying, “They are doing the right thing.” He thought they were ahead of some of the residential communities in Puerto Rico.

Carlos Velazques-Figueroa, a wastewater technician for RCAP Solutions, expects big things from the territory in the future.

“In the next five years the Virgin Islands will see a major change to water infrastructure with the help of disaster funding”  because he sees the local government “working towards that,” Velazques-Figueroa said.

Torres-Olivo said the territory has the potential to be “self-sustaining in 10 years.”

One challenge that the U.S. Virgin Islands still face is that it needs a certification program for a treatment plant operator, which the government, through DPNR, hopes to make a reality in the near future.

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