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EPA: Water at Puerto Rico Superfund site is fit for consumption

Water drawn from wells at a hazardous waste site in hurricane-hit Puerto Rico meets federal drinking water standards and is fit for consumption, the US Environmental Protection Agency said in a news release on Tuesday.

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John D. Sutter (CNN)
(CNN) — Water drawn from wells at a hazardous waste site in hurricane-hit Puerto Rico meets federal drinking water standards and is fit for consumption, the US Environmental Protection Agency said in a news release on Tuesday.

The water being pulled from wells at the Dorado Groundwater Contamination Site, which is part of the Superfund program for hazardous waste cleanup, meets federal drinking water standards for certain industrial chemicals, as well as for bacteria, Elias Rodriguez, an EPA spokesman, told CNN.

The water is "OK to consume based on the analysis that we've done," Rodriguez said.

CNN previously reported that desperate locals had been breaking into wells on the Dorado hazardous waste site in search of water. Following Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island about six weeks ago, 18% of households in Puerto Rico remain without working taps. Bottled water has been scarce on parts of the Caribbean island, which is a US territory.

The EPA listed the area as a hazardous waste site in 2016.

"Sampling at the site has found chemical contamination that is impacting wells used to supply drinking water to the local communities," the agency said at the time. "Drinking water with the solvents, which include tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene, can have serious health impacts including damage to the liver and increasing the risk of cancer."

Those chemicals were not present at unsafe levels in the water sampled, Rodriguez said.

Bacteria, which are also a concern in drinking water supplies after storms like Hurricane Maria, were also found to be at safe levels, he said. The Puerto Rican government has confirmed multiple deaths linked to waterborne illness since the hurricane.

To the surprise of some people at the EPA, Rodriguez said, some of the wells located on the Superfund site actually were collecting water from an aqueduct system that is not sourced from groundwater at the contaminated site. At two other wells -- Santa Rosa and Nevarez -- the water was a mix of aqueduct water and groundwater pulled from the Superfund site, he said.

The Puerto Rican water authority has been distributing water from the Santa Rosa well. The EPA did find between about 1 and 1.5 micrograms per liter of tetrachloroethylene, a chemical linked to risk of cancer, in water sampled from the Santa Rosa well. That falls within the federal drinking water standard of 5 micrograms per liter.

That chemical "is considered a likely carcinogen and there's no fully safe level," said Erik Olson, director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, an environmental group. That level of contamination "poses some long-term cancer and health risk," he said, "but as a short-term exposure issue the risk is fairly limited."

Overall, Olson said he considers the EPA results "somewhat reassuring."

More tests are forthcoming, Rodriguez said, but the test results released on Tuesday covered the chemicals of concern at the Superfund site, as well as bacteria that tend to cause illness following hurricanes and floods, he said.

The EPA results are consistent with earlier results from a Virginia Tech lab. On October 19, CNN published the results of those university water tests, which also found the water to meet safe drinking water standards for certain industrial chemicals. The Virginia Tech lab conducted those tests on samples collected by CNN using somewhat crude field methods. "I would drink" the water based on those test results, Professor Marc Edwards said at the time.

The EPA will decide as it moves forward with its Superfund assessment process whether to keep the water wells open indefinitely or whether some eventually would be closed because of potential risks, Rodriguez said.

The wells that do contain a mix of water from wells on the hazardous waste site are located away from an area that is thought to have more-problematic levels of chemical contamination, he said.

That distance is not especially comforting given the karst geology of the area, which allows contaminants to move more rapidly than through some other soil types, said Olson, from NRDC. "If you pump heavily you can see contaminants move over very long distance pretty quickly," he said. "If this is truly next to a large plume of contaminants, that's something I would be worried about -- that the contaminants could move into that area."

Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor, said it is "very unfortunate" that anyone would have to drink from a well located on a Superfund site, "but in the scheme of bad water available in Puerto Rico now, this at least is microbiologically pure" and shows low levels of chemicals with possible long-term health consequences.

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