More than 100 days after Hurricane Maria, EPA warns of waterways contaminated by raw sewage

Federal response to Puerto Rico's disaster has been sluggish, to say the least.

Mother Isamar holds her baby in San Juan. CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mother Isamar holds her baby in San Juan. CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency posted a press release on its website Friday detailing the lack of safe water in some of Puerto Rico’s bodies of water following the ongoing devastation from Hurricane Maria, which hit the island last September. The EPA reports the hazardous water is likely due to raw sewage leaks and warned residents to steer clear.

“In general, and out of an abundance of caution, EPA and local government agencies in Puerto Rico continue to recommend that people take precautions when coming in direct contact with waterbodies in Puerto Rico, including streams, rivers, and beaches because of the possibility of raw sewage being discharged into some water bodies,” the EPA said.

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The release notes that roughly 76,000 Puerto Ricans currently rely on drinking water sourced from wells and surface water not supplied by the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, which currently monitors the drinking water quality across the island, and are at risk of coming into contact with contaminated water.

This appears to contradict a recent report from the Federal Management agency (FEMA) that suggested 95 percent of Puerto Ricans have access to potable water. With over a third of the island (roughly one million people) still without power, this is likely to be a misleading statistic. Electricity and water are inextricably linked. Water treatment facilities are connected to the power grid and need a constant connection to function accurately.

Puerto Ricans have noted that their water service is typically touch-and-go, and this is proving to have disastrous results. There has been a significant uptick in waterborne illnesses and even reports of deaths due to Leptospirosis, a fatal disease caused by contact with contaminated water.

Just a few months ago, the EPA warned they had received reports of some Puerto Rican residents “obtaining, or trying to obtain, drinking water from wells at hazardous waste ‘Superfund’ sites,” of which the island has 23. Eventually the agency stepped in, hiring contractors to repair fencing around Superfund sites to prevent access.

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In an interview with ABC News last week, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz called President Donald Trump the “disaster-in-chief” because of what many have criticized as a bungled response to the devastating storm.

“Where he needed to be a commander-in-chief, he was a disaster-in-chief. President Trump does not embody the values of the good-hearted American people that have make sure that we are not forgotten,” Cruz said.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Roselló echoed Cruz’s sentiment in an interview with Meet the Press in November, where he described Puerto Ricans as feeling as though they are “second-class citizens.