Earlier this week, President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency in the U.S. Virgin Islands due to high levels of lead contamination in the water supply. Tests conducted on St. Croix showed levels that were more than 100 times the limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, making it one of the worst cases of lead contamination seen in a U.S. community in decades.
Frandelle Gerard, executive director of Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism, Inc., expressed her personal fear and frustration.
Authorities instructed citizens to discontinue the use of their faucets and initiated the provision of coupons for bottled water. Exposure to lead can result in severe consequences for the growth, conduct, and intelligence levels of young individuals.
However, according to specialists consulted by The Associated Press, the alarming findings may be inaccurate as they were obtained through testing that does not adhere to EPA standards.
Marc Edwards, a water expert from Virginia Tech who was instrumental in uncovering the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, suggests that the data should be discarded.
In the past, there have been instances where the information provided to residents of St. Croix has been incorrect. This is a common issue in communities, particularly those with a majority Black population, who are often facing lead contamination crises. This can lead to uncertainty and confusion among residents. In the cases of Flint and Newark, officials initially hid the fact that lead levels were high. In Newark, even though lead pipes are typically the root cause, officials reassured residents about the safety of their reservoirs. In Benton Harbor, Michigan, it took months for officials to confirm the effectiveness of filters, leaving residents to rely on bottled water.
The leaders of St. Croix in the Caribbean were able to avoid certain mistakes and promptly informed residents of the outcome. The governor also declared a state of emergency.
Andrew Smith, the head of the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority, stated that discussing this matter is not something we avoid.
Edwards disputes the accuracy of the abnormally high results and attributes the issue to the method of sample collection. Typically, water is collected from a faucet in a home for lead testing. However, in the case of St. Croix, the samples were taken from the meter.
“When you unscrew it, you are essentially tearing the leaded-brass apart, causing a fragment of it to enter your sample,” he explained. This leads to artificially inflated results.
Tom Neltner, an expert on chemicals and lead from the Environmental Defense Fund, concurred that the testing conducted through the water meter is not reliable. He mentioned that there are several peculiarities in St. Croix’s sampling methods.
As a result, parents in St. Croix remain unaware of the amount of lead their children were ingesting.
This is the information that is currently available:
During September, authorities conducted routine testing at faucets in accordance with EPA regulations for lead testing. The findings indicated that the water was deemed safe.
Island inhabitants, who had been experiencing discolored water for a while, noticed that the color was becoming increasingly worse in the past few months. In response, authorities collected additional samples, this time from the meter, to determine if the utility’s pipes were the cause. These tests revealed alarmingly high levels of lead.
Smith expressed that the outcomes were unexpected and caught everyone off guard.
Upon retesting, it was discovered that the results remained excessively elevated. However, at two schools and other locations, the levels were significantly lower.
An updated and conclusive response is expected in the near future. Both local and federal authorities conducted thorough examinations to determine the underlying issue in early November. The final findings are anticipated to be released in mid-December.
According to Smith, approximately 3,400 households have been impacted and the utility company collaborated with the EPA to conduct sampling.
Despite not following the usual protocol, EPA water specialist Christine Ash advised that as a precautionary measure, individuals who rely on utility water should refrain from consuming it until further investigation can determine if there is a possible source of lead and its origin.
Luckily, not everyone on St. Croix is included in this.
Many individuals depend on the rainwater they gather in cisterns.
In numerous cities on the mainland, the primary concern for drinking water is lead pipes. However, this is not the case on the island. According to Smith, the issue there is with brass fittings that have lead content and are susceptible to corrosion, potentially contaminating the water supply.
Regardless of the outcome of the tests, the water system requires maintenance and repair. Smith and his team are currently flushing water through the system. When the water is not in use, it remains stagnant and may become contaminated. They are also working on improving their water treatment methods to reduce corrosion and replacing any components that contain lead. According to Smith, this replacement process may take anywhere from 12 to 18 months. Furthermore, the island’s water system is aging and significant upgrades are scheduled for the future.
Gerard stated that the individuals on the island are feeling extremely burdened.
She expressed, “There is a feeling of uncertainty about the future of St. Croix.” She mentioned that the community has faced significant challenges, including a destructive hurricane, the ongoing pandemic, and pollution from a refinery, all within a short period of time. She also noted that many individuals have stopped using tap water due to previous contamination. It is difficult to determine how to interpret the current situation.
“Having a good level of literacy, the reports have left us with more uncertainties than clarifications.” According to her, it is likely that a significant number of individuals do not comprehend the severity of these lead test findings.
According to her, the current solution of using large amounts of water to decrease lead levels in the pipes is not suitable for the island.
Gerard stated that we are a society that values water conservation and recognizes its importance as a valuable resource.
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