Puerto Rico has worst drinking water violation rate

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The Puerto Rican flag flies in front of Puerto Rico's capitol in San Juan. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico has the worst rate of drinking water violations of any U.S. jurisdiction, with dangerous contaminants in recent years ranging from lead to disinfectants to coliform bacteria, an environmental group said Wednesday.

Nearly the entire island was supplied in 2015 with water from systems that violated the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which used the most recent statistics available.

Most of the violations were for failure to test the water's safety or failure to report issues to the public or health authorities as required, the group said.

"Millions of people in Puerto Rico consume water daily confident in its quality and purity, but that is far from the truth," said Hector Claudio Hernandez, one of the report's co-authors.

The group said many of the violations have occurred for years, noting that there were nearly 34,000 violations from 2005 to 2015. In 2015 alone, nearly half of more than 400 water systems across the island violated federal health standards, according to the environmental group.

Eli Diaz-Atienza, the newly appointed executive president of Puerto Rico's Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, told The Associated Press that updated tests show there is currently no lead in the island's drinking water. He also said the 146 water systems that the agency operates out of the island's total of 466 systems meet federal standards.

"Right now we understand there's no threat to the public health of Puerto Rico," he said, adding that he would provide copies of those tests.

He noted the violations of certain contaminants occurred under previous administrations, but said he was not making excuses for that.

"Just one case of contaminants is a problem for us, and we have to address it responsibly," he said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said nearly the entire population of 3.4 million people has been served by systems that violated standards regulating the presence of lead and copper. It said all but one of the more than 600 violations were for failure to test for lead or report problems to the public or health authorities.

Those violations could be masking a lead problem, said Erik Olson, co-author of the report and director of the council's health program.

"Because the testing was not completed, we may never know," he said. "Basically the entire island is being served by systems that are violating the testing and reporting requirements."

He said this could mean a range of things, including that government officials failed to test for lead or other contaminants or did not report those test results to the island's health department.

Diaz-Atienza stressed that internal reports find that Puerto Rico is currently 97.9 percent compliant with required reporting and monitoring.

"We understand that water in Puerto Rico is safe," he said.

However, nearly 10 percent of the island's 300-plus water systems that serve small, rural communities that are operated by Puerto Rico's health department were labeled serious violators in 2011 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Only one of those systems was in compliance in early 2015, the Natural Resources Defense Council said.

A health department spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

The council urged the U.S. territory's government and a fiscal control board overseeing the administration's finances to provide money for projects to improve the utility's infrastructure. Diaz-Atienza said his department is seeking $2.4 billion over a decade to in part fund infrastructure projects.

Puerto Rico's government, however, is struggling to provide basic services amid a 10-year-old recession. The water and sewer authority holds roughly $5 billion of the island's overall $73 billion public debt load that the government is seeking to restructure.

In addition, Olson said the administration of U.S President Donald Trump has proposed massive budget cuts that could worsen the problem. He added that the Natural Resources Defense Council is starting to go through the 2016 statistics on Puerto Rico's water quality, which just recently became available and are incomplete.

"It looks like things are pretty much the same," he said. "Still widespread violations."