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HomeNewsLocal governmentStaggering Levels of Lead and Copper in Some St. Croix Drinking Water

Staggering Levels of Lead and Copper in Some St. Croix Drinking Water

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. said people in four St. Croix areas should not use WAPA water and others should be wary. (Screenshot from Government House live feed)

Do not drink, bathe in, cook with, or even brush your teeth using water from municipal pipes containing extraordinarily high levels of lead and copper in parts of St. Croix, government officials warned Tuesday.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. issued a “no drinking” advisory for Water and Power Authority water in Estates Diamond, Castle Burke, Colquhoun, and Mon Bijou late Monday. Boiling water does not remove these harmful metals.

Cistern water remains safe, he said, but warned WAPA water could be connected in unexpected places, such as the Government House ice maker. Likewise, water outside the four elevated-contaminant-level areas should have safe drinking water but avoiding it or running WAPA-connected pipes for three to five minutes was not a bad idea, Bryan said.

“So if you’re not mentioned in the area, more than likely your water is safe. If you feel safer just using bottled water for now until we retest the system, please go ahead and do so. Once again, there is no cause for panic,” he said.

Tests conducted Sept. 30 and returned to the territory Oct. 13 showed elevated amounts of lead in 35 of 65 test sites and elevated copper levels at 15 sites. A few test sites revealed dangerously toxic water.

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.

WAPA urged people in affected areas not to use their water for baby formula. Lead exposure can cause developmental disabilities in children, especially the very young.

Don Gregoire, WAPA’s director of water distribution, said in most cases, the test site pipes returned to safe or non-existent lead and copper levels after water was flushed through for three to five minutes.

“In four cases, samples exceeded the EPA action level even after the flushing. EPA is also actively providing technical assistance, including assessing the underlying cause of the lead and copper and planning for additional samples and analysis as soon as possible,” Gregoire said. “If you are concerned about lead exposure, you may want to ask your healthcare provider about testing to determine lead blood levels.”

Since 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set the acceptable limit for lead in a child’s blood at 3.5 micrograms per liter. Blood levels above 10 micrograms are cause for concern, according to the CDC. The worst of the water recently tested was 20,100 micrograms per liter.

Acute exposure to high amounts of lead can produce abdominal pain, cramps, and vomiting. Brief exposures to low or moderate lead levels may not cause any specific symptoms, but continued exposure to lead may cause encephalopathy — a range of disorders that affect mental function, according to the CDC.

Bryan described a fluid emergency-response operation where a protocol with the Health Department was still being worked out.

Gregoire urged people to drink bottled or cistern water and run their WAPA tap water for several minutes before bathing.

“Avoid using hot water, as lead dissolves more easily in hot water. Boiling water does not remove lead,” he said. “When bathing, use cold water for a brief amount of time, as lead can also be absorbed through the skin and the eyes. Identify and replace plumbing that contains lead in the house. Brass, faucets, fittings, valves, including labels that indicate lead-free may still contribute to lead in drinking water.”

Bryan said pallets of bottled water had been delivered to affected schools and warned bottled water sellers and other private water distributors to not raise prices during a possible demand increase, saying illegal gouging would be penalized.

“This morning, we were delivering pallets to schools, schools specifically affected include John Woodson, which is virtual right now, the Complex and several others. We’re asking water vendors to maintain reasonable prices on this essential commodity. We will not hesitate to penalize and punish anybody who has taken advantage of our residents and this current situation ’cause it’s very serious. Furthermore, if further testing confirms unsafe levels in these areas, we will consider issuing a state of emergency that will avail us to the resources of FEMA and the federal government,” he said.

Hours earlier, Sen. Angel Bolques Jr. called on Bryan to direct the Licensing and Consumer Affairs Department to institute a price freeze on all water sales on St. Croix.

“This price freeze should encompass bottled water, water hauled for human consumption, and water filtration products. In light of recent concerns about price gouging, we must prevent any opportunistic exploitation of our residents during this crisis. Price gouging in times of need is not only morally reprehensible, but it undermines the well-being of our people. Water is the most precious resource for human survival. In these challenging times, we must ensure that our people are not deprived of adequate drinking water or taken advantage of due to the ongoing crisis at the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority,” Bolques said.

The EPA said approximately 13,000 of St. Croix’s roughly 41,000 residents depend on WAPA water.

The problem did not originate at the WAPA water plant or in the main lines but in smaller pipes, Bryan said, especially those that had maybe not been used in a while.

EPA officials told WAPA and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources that “the high lead levels may be impacted by stagnant water combined with aging infrastructure.”

While the source of the lead had not been identified, leaded solder or lead joints in the distribution system — possibly at the meter where some of the samples were taken — could account for the contamination. “There may also be brass couplings connecting copper lines and other brass plumbing in the distribution system,” EPA officials said.

The governor said all the territory’s WAPA water was regularly tested and had not shown elevated lead or copper levels. Earlier St. Croix tests in September had come back normal.

Early in September, many St. Croix WAPA customers started noticing discolored water from the tap. This prompted the authority to do additional testing. The EPA lab results showed unexpectedly high lead and copper levels, but not in all the brown water.

“Some good news is that we recently discovered that we do have a machine at the Department of Health now that can identify lead in water,” Bryan said. “Part of the challenges is we don’t really have labs on the island and the EPA was giving us one or two weeks in terms of return. We have identified some labs in Puerto Rico where we can get two-day return on results. So after we finished flushing all of this system out, we’re going to get these lab samples.”

While water testing may be streamlined, getting information to people possibly drinking the dangerous water was initially slow. The EPA’s response letter outlining the extent of the lead and copper was dated Oct. 12. WAPA said they were not informed of the findings until late afternoon Oct. 13. The authority then double-checked their public advisory about the contaminated water with the EPA and DPNR, issuing a media release after 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14 entitled “Authority Collaborates for Water Quality Enhancements with Additional Technical Assistance.” Government House said Bryan was not briefed until Monday morning. Bryan’s “no drinking” advisory wasn’t sent to media outlets until after 8 p.m. Monday — four days after EPA labs tested extraordinarily high lead and copper levels in public drinking water.

Bryan said aside from having people avoid the water, his priority was testing, flushing the lines, and retesting. If it doesn’t get better, he was prepared to use Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency resources.

“Once we ascertain that this is truly a full-blown emergency and we confirm these tests, then VITEMA and FEMA and the Virgin Islands Emergency Management System will be taking over and we will be figuring out how to get water, drinking water to our residents. And that may include getting trailers of water and bringing it to residents. We know we really don’t want to go there. That’s a lot of logistical nightmare, trying to figure out who lives in those areas. So we’re just asking people to be patient. The prudent replacement and everything else for the water system is moving along,” Bryan said.

As for a long-term solution, replacing the island’s pipes could take five or 10 years to replace, if needed, Bryan said. WAPA CEO Andrew Smith has said it was more likely closer to 20 years to do the whole island.

The presence of lead pipes isn’t a new revelation. In December 2021, Congressional Delegate Stacey Plaskett announced nearly $32 million in funding to replace lead pipes via President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Bryan, ever the optimist, said the territory was up to the task.

“If we figure out we have a situation where we need to replace a certain level of pipes or whatever in order to get the clean water back to where it needs to be, we can just move ahead and do that. We’ll find the resources to do that. That’s not a problem,” he said.

On Wednesday morning, Government House announced that 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. The Department of Planning and Natural Resources 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.

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