According to V.I. government officials, results of initial tests conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, which exposed hazardous levels of lead and copper in St. Croix’s water supply, may have been inaccurate. In response, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. plans to extend a local State of Emergency declaration as investigations continue to confirm the island’s water quality.
Since the EPA’s water test results became available in mid-October, additional testing has been ongoing across St. Croix, with newer results leading V.I. officials to question whether the water supply is truly contaminated.
“Governor Albert Bryan Jr. and the territory’s Unified Command were informed late Wednesday of the results of the sequential testing and shared those results,” said Motta. “The comprehensive analysis indicated that concerns over widespread, elevated levels of lead and copper in the water system may be unfounded,” he continued.
Motta explained that EPA’s preliminary tests, which were meant to evaluate red and brown water, deviated from typical testing protocols, possibly resulting in test results that were incorrect. Subsequent tests have shown that the water supply may indeed be safe.
“While some areas on St. Croix continue to experience water quality issues, primarily discolored water due to aging and deteriorating ductile iron pipes, the EPA’s initial elevated readings of lead and copper are now understood to be largely due to deviations from standard testing protocols,” Motta said. “The initial sampling protocol, which focused on sampling at the meter rather than the tap to evaluate and assess the red and brown water, potentially introduced other contaminants into the sampled water,” he continued.
“The EPA, in conjunction with WAPA and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, conducted sequential testing in early November utilizing the agency’s standard protocol,” Motta explained. “The results, which EPA shared with the V.I. government Wednesday evening, indicated that all tested sites overwhelmingly reported levels of lead and copper well below the actionable levels, and many areas were non-detectable,” he noted.
Bryan plans to lengthen the current local State of Emergency by another 30 days while further testing is completed. The emergency order is scheduled to expire on Wednesday.
“The governor fully intends to extend the existing State of Emergency while we continue to work to confirm these tests for determining whether or not there are, in fact, elevated levels of lead and copper in our water system,” Motta explained.
As of Monday, the EPA has not instructed the V.I. government to disregard their initial testing findings, Motta said.
“We’re continuing to investigate whatever potential lead and copper may exist in the water system,” Motta said. “We’re currently working with the EPA and our other federal partners to make certain that we pinpoint what the issue is – if an issue exists,” he added.
In a statement to the Source Monday, EPA officials said it is creating a report for the territory that will be shared publicly within the next few weeks.
“In keeping with our joint efforts to determine the source of lead in drinking water, on Wednesday, November 22 EPA shared with its U.S. Virgin Islands partners the raw data from samples taken at 11 homes as part of a sequential sampling study conducted by EPA. All samples were all taken from private homes. Of the 11 homes sampled, three samples at three different private homes came back above EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion. In those three cases, EPA directed WAPA to inform the homeowners,” according to the EPA.
“The goal of sequential sampling was to help begin to identify the potential sources of lead and better understand why the levels were so high at the distribution meters. EPA’s sequential sampling study is helping to determine the potential sources of lead originally found in September and the results are generally indicating lead levels at household taps are far lower than those found at the meters. However, EPA is still reviewing the results of the sequential sampling effort and will prepare a report with our conclusions and recommendations,” the statement said.
Health Department Delivers Updates on Lead Testing
Virgin Islands Health Commissioner Justa E. Encarnacion provided an update regarding pediatric lead tests and encouraged residents to have their children evaluated.
Encarnacion explained that 550 children have received initial “finger prick” blood tests. Several have tested positive, pending confirmation. However, after the children received additional blood tests called “venous blood draws,” a more thorough and accurate test in which blood is drawn directly from a vein in the arm, there have been no confirmed positive results for lead exposure to date.
“As of 1 p.m. on Monday, 11 results of the venous blood draws have been returned, [and] all 11 have returned negative, or below the level of concern for lead in their system,” Encarnacion said. “More results are pending,” she noted.
Lead poisoning is especially harmful to children up to the age of six, and expectant mothers may also be at heightened risk due to complications affecting unborn children due to lead exposure.
“We strongly encourage all parents to prioritize lead testing for their children, ages zero to six, even if their homes are not in impacted areas. Expectant mothers should also consider lead testing, as unborn children can be affected by lead in the blood,” she cautioned.
Information about lead testing is available on the V.I. Health Department website and at CleanWaterUSVI.com. Additionally, individuals with concerns related to lead exposure can contact the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. For information regarding testing, the VI DOH hotlines can be reached Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at 340-712-6299 and 340-776-1519.
Vaccines for Influenza and COVID-19
Encarnacion noted that flu season starts on Friday, and so far, 14 cases of influenza have been reported by physicians across the USVI since October. She explained the importance of getting vaccinated against both the flu and COVID-19. Also, she reminded residents to practice proper hygiene, including washing hands, covering their mouths when coughing, and staying at home while sick.
“I’m urging residents to prioritize their health by getting vaccinated against the flu virus, especially our elderly and young children [and those with underlying health conditions] who are most susceptible to severe flu-related complications,” Encarnacion stated.
Vaccines against COVID-19 are also available, though they are currently only offered to uninsured and underinsured individuals.
“The COVID vaccine is available right now for the underinsured and uninsured,” Encarnacion explained. “We have placed our order to get the vaccine available for insured people,” she said.
Information about flu and COVID-19 vaccines is available on the VI DOH website.