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UPDATE: V.I. Government to Seek National Emergency Declaration Over Lead in STX Water

Water and Power Authority CEO Andrew Smith said local and federal experts were working on solving elevated levels of lead and copper in some St. Croix water pipes. (Screenshot from Livestream)

Updated at 7:46 a.m. Friday

The V.I. government plans to ask President Joe Biden to declare elevated levels of lead found in St. Croix’s potable water system a national emergency, a task force formed to address the situation announced early Friday morning.

“The V.I. Government is working with our federal partners to provide the necessary data and documentation to make a case for a federal declaration of a national emergency by the president,” the USVI Joint Information Center said in a release issued at 6:20 a.m. Friday.

“A federal declaration will potentially make it possible to receive resources for expanded testing, technical assistance, and relief to residents, particularly with urgency for vulnerable community members,” it said.

Water in parts of St. Croix remains dangerously contaminated with lead and copper, a second round of testing revealed Thursday, Government House announced. As a result, all St. Croix residents were cautioned not to drink water from Water and Power Authority pipes.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s team did not specify how much lead and copper was in the pipes but said it was now safe to bathe, flush, and do laundry in the water “without danger of adverse effects.”

Government House said samples from the St. Croix Educational Complex, the John H. Woodson Junior High School, the Alfredo Andrews Elementary School, and the Mount Pleasant Housing Community showed levels of lead and copper that were either non-detectable or were below the 15 parts per billion mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

WAPA officials had said earlier in the day that stagnant water may be to blame for the extraordinary levels of lead and copper found in some St. Croix water lines.

Unlike on the mainland, many U.S. Virgin Islands homes connected to municipal pipes rely almost entirely on cistern water, said Andrew Smith, the utility’s CEO, during a meeting of WAPA’s governing board. Water sitting in the pipes for months would be more inclined to contain the contaminants.

“It is known that stagnant water in a line can absorb contaminants. We also know that a number of our customers do not use WAPA water on a regular basis even though they are connected for municipal water,” Smith said. “Some of the meter information that we pulled for the sites that were tested for these supplemental samples had not been used for months. They had no water flow. We think a significant factor at play here is stagnant water in the water lines.”

Tests conducted at the end of September 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.

WAPA flushed the lines and eventually temporarily turned off public access. Bryan issued a “no drinking” advisory for WAPA water in Estates Diamond, Castle Burke, Colquhoun, and Mon Bijou. Boiling water does not remove these harmful metals, officials warned.

The EPA requires regular testing for common bio-contaminants, Smith said.

“We test our system every day for contaminants like E. coli, coliform, and those sorts of materials that can cause consumers to get sick from the water,” Smith said.

Tests for metals happen every three years. Smith said two of 60 regularly scheduled territory-wide metal tests in September came back at or above the EPA’s acceptable threshold. Homeowners were promptly notified, Smith said.

WAPA undertook additional testing in late September to determine the cause of reddish-brown water in some of its St. Croix pipes — and discovered the elevated lead and copper content, Smith said. After the lines were flushed for five to 10 minutes, two of the sites still had elevated lead and copper levels.

Lead levels in one pipe tested at more than 1,340 times the EPA threshold. 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.

Two oddities with the tests themselves were important, Smith said. The first tests used samples taken directly from home taps, per EPA regulations, while the more recent discolored-water tests were taken from the valves away from home taps. Secondly, the test kit used was not a standard 1-litter bottle but a 250-milliliter bottle — meaning a higher concentration per milliliter was possible.

Smith said additional sampling was underway, as were investigations into short-term and long-term plans about how to solve the issue. It’s not as easy as replacing pipes, which could take decades. In the near term, different treatment chemicals could potentially reduce the amount of metal that leaches into the water.

“It’s important to know this isn’t just WAPA doing this,” he said. “We have standing technical calls with the EPA.”

The EPA has faced many similar issues as municipal water systems age across the United States, Smith said.

The Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the Health Department, Government House, VITEMA, and other agencies are involved.

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