SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO—Virtually the entire population of Puerto Rico drew tap water in 2015 from water systems that violated federal rules set under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), according to a new report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), El Puente: Enlace Latino de Acción Climática, and Asociación Nacional de Derecho Ambiental (ANDA).
“Millions of people, including children and pregnant women, are drawing water from decaying systems that put their health at risk,” said Erik Olson, director of NRDC’s Health Program. “Puerto Rico’s water system is failing. A serious investment is required to secure safe and clean drinking water for the island.”
“Threats on Tap: Drinking Water Violations in Puerto Rico” shows that in 2015, more than 3.4 million Puerto Rican residents—99.5 percent of the island’s population—were served by community water systems that failed to test the water’s safety, report issues to the public or health authorities, treat their water as required, or contained high levels of contaminants including bacteria and cancer-causing chemicals.
Although the most common violations were failures to test water quality and report issues, over two-thirds of the population—more than 2.4 million Puerto Ricans—was served by water systems that had unlawfully high levels of contaminants like coliform bacteria, disinfection byproducts and volatile organic compounds, or that failed to treat their water to remove risky contaminants. The most serious violations came from the smaller water systems on the island.
The report indicates that lead contamination problems were either not reported or go untested for water distributed to 97 percent of the population, but in some cases, test samples indicated excessive levels of lead in drinking water systems.
"A lot of people on the island rely on their tap water," says David Ortiz, director of El Puente: Enlace Latino de Acción Climática. "Puerto Rico has a water crisis that is unlike anything in the U.S. mainland. The condition of our drinking water is so bad that we have to think about reworking monitoring, treatment and infrastructure."
Puerto Rico had the worst rate of drinking water violations of any state or territory in the nation in 2015 according to the report.
Widespread violations of the SDWA in Puerto Rico make clear the need for urgent and substantial action to correct underlying issues. The report highlights several major recommendations for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s government, the island’s water authorities, and the Financial Oversight and Management Board to ensure that millions of Puerto Rico’s residents have access to safe and clean drinking water, including:
- Invest in Puerto Rico’s water infrastructure to fix, upgrade, and maintain drinking water distribution systems to make sure the water is safe and in full compliance with health standards, and to reduce the major water losses that plague many water systems across Puerto Rico and cost consumers millions.
- Implement a robust system for testing drinking water for contaminants that complies with legal requirements.
- Improve drinking water treatment to meet standards that protect the health of Puerto Ricans and visitors from dangerous contaminants.
- Strengthen enforcement of all drinking water regulations.
- Adopt zoning and permitting measures targeted at ensuring groundwater and surface water are protected from significant pollution sources.
“Puerto Rico is facing terrible financial burdens, but that doesn’t take away the responsibility of local and federal authorities to protect the health of Puerto Ricans,” says Héctor Claudio Hernández, executive director of Asociación Nacional de Derecho Ambiental (ANDA). “There is no reason why families and communities should have to bear risks to their health because of contaminated drinking water.”
Puerto Rico filing a form of bankruptcy does not affect federal funding used to uphold the EPA’s established health standards, or monitoring and reporting rules. Advocates claim that federal oversight of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority means greater federal responsibility in addressing the island’s drinking water quality issues.
“Threats on Tap: Drinking Water Violations in Puerto Rico" and its companion searchable interactive map is available online with several supplemental documents explaining the issues at play, as well as steps communities and homeowners can take to protect themselves from contaminated drinking water at https://www.nrdc.org/resources/threats-tap-drinking-water-violations-puerto-rico.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.
The National Environmental Law Association (ANDA, Inc. in Spanish) is a non-profit environmental law center whose efforts are aimed at facilitating access to justice and promoting the empowerment of Puerto Rico’s low-income communities. Since 2008 ANDA has been working to achieve a Puerto Rico in which everyone, without any discrimination, has guaranteed access to decision making processes that have an environmental impact, obtain the same degree of protection against environmental risks, and enjoy equitable access to our natural resources. Visit us at andapuertorico.org or follow us on Twitter @ANDAorg or Facebook.
Founded by El Puente of Williamsburg, NY, El Puente: Latino Climate Action Network/Enlace Latino de Acción Climática’s vision is to connect communities, groups and individual leaders to address climate change, promoting safety, comprehensive health and cultural values of self-determination, sustainability, social justice and peace in Puerto Rico. Our mission is to inspire and nurture leaders for peace and justice. We seek to create environmental awareness and encourage citizen participation for mitigation and adaptation to climate change. We are currently working to shift Puerto Rico from an electrical system based overwhelmingly on expensive fossil fuels to one that relies largely on solar, wind and energy efficiency.