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Washington Weighing Disaster Declaration for STX; Four Children Test Positive for Lead Exposure

A federal disaster declaration could bring $5 million in federal funds to help deal with the St. Croix water crisis, Government House said Monday during its weekly press briefing. The news comes as the V.I. Health Department reported that of 118 children tested so far for lead exposure, four have come back positive, pending definitive confirmation.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. has requested the approval of a federal disaster declaration from President Joe Biden due to lead found in the water supply on St. Croix, Government House Communications Director Richard Motta Jr. said, while offering additional updates on the USVI government’s response to the crisis, including information about testing school-aged children for potential exposure to lead.

Motta explained that, if approved, the disaster declaration will provide the territory with resources to continue addressing and resolving the water issues.

Richard Motta Jr., Government House director of communications, speaks during the weekly briefing on Monday afternoon. (Photo courtesy of Facebook live stream)

“Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. has formally requested an emergency declaration from President Biden in response to this incident,” said Motta. “This action follows the Governor’s declaration of a local State of Emergency on Oct. 30, 2023, in response to hazardous levels of lead and copper detected in the water supply of St. Croix,” he continued. “Gov. Bryan’s request to President Biden for an emergency declaration is crucial to garner federal support to assist the territory in managing this unprecedented situation,” Motta added.

“If approved, the declaration will cover a 90-day period beginning Nov. 15 through Feb. 13, 2024, and will provide up to an additional $5 million in resources to the territory. This support is vital for assisting in implementing immediate solutions to ensure clean and safe water for all St. Croix residents and restore normalcy in the wake of this environmental challenge,” Motta stated.

Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency Director Daryl Jaschen confirmed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency Region Two office is processing the disaster declaration request. (FEMA Region Two partners with federal emergency management for eight Tribal Nations and four states/territories, including the USVI.)

“As of [Monday] morning, Region Two verified the receipt of the emergency declaration request and stated that it is being vetted through the appropriate channels on its way to the White House,” Jaschen explained. “VITEMA and FEMA will continue to assess and develop all of the efforts and work in conjunction to provide timely assistance.”

VITEMA Director Daryl Jaschen speaks during Monday’s press briefing. (Photo courtesy of Facebook live stream)

Lead contamination was initially discovered by the Environmental Protection Agency and reported on Oct. 13, after tests conducted at the end of September confirmed elevated lead levels. Since finding lead, Bryan has implemented several measures, including capping bottled water prices, activating the Virgin Islands National Guard, and mobilizing VITEMA to respond to the crisis. Additional water tests have regularly occurred since mid-October, and plans are in place to expand blood tests for school-aged children to protect the safety and health of the community.

Motta added that plans are also in place to issue vouchers to residents for clean drinking water.

“These efforts underscore the territory’s commitment to addressing this crisis comprehensively and ensuring the health and safety of its citizens,” Motta noted.

Health Department Update

Dr. Esther Ellis, Territorial Epidemiologist with the Virgin Islands Health Department, provided an update regarding blood tests for school-aged children to check for any sign of contamination.

“This week, the V.I. Department of Health’s Epidemiology and Laboratory Division are continuing the pediatric testing for children zero to six years old at two sites per day,” Ellis said.

Dr. Esther Ellis, Territorial Epidemiologist with the V.I. Health Department, shared information pertaining to blood tests to check for lead exposure among children. (Photo courtesy of Facebook livestream)

Testing will be completed at various locations across St. Croix, including on-site at school campuses. Information about blood tests for lead exposure can be found on the Health Department’s website here.

“The lead test will be provided at no cost to the child, and parental consent is required upon registration before the test can be scheduled,” Ellis added.

Exposure to lead can have serious health consequences, and Ellis encouraged parents to schedule their children for a test. As of Monday, 118 children had been tested, with four positive results for lead exposure, pending definitive confirmation. The department has requested the aid of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and several individuals, including epidemiologists and laboratorians, have arrived in the USVI to offer support.

“A blood test is the best way to find out if a child has lead poisoning,” Ellis explained. “A child with lead poisoning may not have visible signs or symptoms. Many children who have lead poisoning look and act healthy. Children under the age of six are still developing rapidly, and lead exposure can adversely affect a child’s brain, nervous system, growth, development, and overall behavior,” she cautioned.

Testing hours and locations for blood tests to detect lead exposure. More info is available at the VI Department of Health website. (Photo courtesy of V.I. Health Department website)

Individuals with concerns related to lead exposure can contact the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. For information regarding testing, Health Department hotlines can be reached Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1-340-712-6299 and 340-776-1519.

Upcoming Water Quality Virtual Information Session 

Finally, Communications Director Motta invited the public to join a virtual online meeting on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. to learn more about St. Croix’s water quality situation.

“In this moderated session, we will delve into the recent findings of the elevated lead and copper in certain areas of St. Croix,” Motta said. “Our esteemed guests will provide in-depth insights and updates on this urgent matter.”

Interested individuals can watch the virtual information session on the official Facebook page of the Government House of the USVI, as well as on the Government Access Channel, on channel 27.

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