EPA: Don't use water from Puerto Rico Superfund sites

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A non-functioning water-treatment plant in Puerto Rico. (U.S. Army)

Federal authorities are concerned that residents of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico are risking exposure to toxic chemicals by drinking water from contaminated sources.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited reports that residents desperate for drinking water have been getting or are trying to get water from hazardous waste Superfund sites on the island.

"EPA advises against tampering with sealed and locked wells or drinking from these wells, as it may be dangerous to people's health," the agency said in a news release.

Thousands of Puerto Ricans are still in the dark and do not have access to clean water. EPA, FEMA, and local officials are working on getting drinking-water wells functioning again, the feds said.

"The problem in this community is that due to the impact of Hurricane Irma and then Maria, they have been without electricity. So with EPA and assistance of the municipality of Caguas, we are assisting FEMA in performing evaluations done by the hurricanes," EPA team leader Cristina Maldonado said in a video released by the U.S. Army. "And in this case, we requested FEMA to assist in providing the community with a generator to get the well to function and at least provide water to this community."

The water from local waterways is likely not safe to either drink or even bathe in, officials said, because livestock waste, human sewage, chemicals, and other contaminants have been flowing into rivers, streams, and coastal waters since the storm.

"EPA is continuing to coordinate with local governments in Puerto Rico and the USVI to assess the conditions of drinking water, which includes sampling, analysis and lab support, and getting wastewater treatment systems up and running," the EPA said in the release.

Federal officials are urging people to not drink, bathe in, wash with, or cook with this water without first boiling it for one minute. But many residents are not getting crucial warnings and other information from officials because 90 percent of the island is without power and communications have been disrupted.

"EPA continues to re-assess Superfund sites, oil sites, and chemical facilities in both Puerto Rico and the USVI to determine if the sites were affected by Hurricane Maria and if there is a potential for contamination to cause off-site impacts," the agency said in a statement.