More than three weeks since Hurricane Maria, more than a third of Puerto Ricans still don’t have access to drinking water. So some are turning to wells at Superfund sites on the island—areas designated the most toxic in US territory.
The Environmental Protection Agency, in an email Thursday (Oct 12) to reporters about its relief efforts, notes that it has received reports of people trying to drink potentially dangerous Superfund water, from wells that were sealed to avoid human exposure to toxins: “There are reports of residents obtaining, or trying to obtain, drinking water from wells at hazardous waste ‘Superfund’ sites in Puerto Rico. EPA advises against tampering with sealed and locked wells or drinking from these wells, as it may be dangerous to people’s health.”
Superfund sites contain toxins typically left over from polluting industries. Even long after a site is granted Superfund status, designating it a priority for the federal government, cleanup can take decades—and even then efforts are rarely able to eliminate all toxins.
The EPA says it is assessing “Superfund sites, oil sites, and chemical facilities” inundated by the storm. The agency also warned that no one should drink water from rivers or streams unless it can be boiled for longer than one minute. With 60 percent of wastewater-treatment plants out of service, “raw sewage continues to be released into waterways and is expected to continue until repairs can be made and power is restored,” the EPA wrote. “Water contaminated with livestock waste, human sewage, chemicals, and other contaminants can lead to illness when used for drinking, bathing, and other hygiene activities.”
Meanwhile, 84% of the island is still without electricity, and roughly half of Puerto Ricans have no cell phone service, according to the Washington Post.
The same day as the EPA’s email, president Donald Trump tweeted that the the US “cannot keep FEMA…in P.R. forever!”