ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico exactly a year ago. It devastated the island, which already had major infrastructure problems, including with its drinking water system. NPR's Rebecca Hersher went to Puerto Rico where she found water testing is not what it should be.
FERNANDO ROSARIO-ORTIZ: I guess low flow like last time. To make sure that you don't spill, just fill it up.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: It was a sweaty day this past July, and professor Fernando Rosario-Ortiz was going door to door in Puerto Rico gathering bottles of water from people's bathroom sinks.
(SOUNDBITE OF FAUCET RUNNING)
ROSARIO-ORTIZ: Not all the way to the top. Head space is not an issue so just...
HERSHER: Rosario-Ortiz is a chemist at the University of Colorado, but he grew up in Puerto Rico.
ROSARIO-ORTIZ: I drank water out of the tap every single day of my life.
HERSHER: Hurricane Maria knocked out power and water here last year. And after the storm hit, Rosario-Ortiz set out to test drinking water on the island to make sure it was safe. Initially, he was looking for bacteria and viruses that officials were worried might have contaminated the water after the storm. But Rosario-Ortiz found something else.
ROSARIO-ORTIZ: When we got the data back, we noticed that some of the levels of lead were elevated.
HERSHER: Now, Rosario-Ortiz has the calm demeanor of a data-driven scientist, which he is, but don't let his tone fool you. He was very concerned about these high lead levels. And his concern only grew because when he went to check the public data reported by the Puerto Rican water utility, he found they hadn't been testing for lead the way they were supposed to under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
ROSARIO-ORTIZ: There's a fair number of lead and copper rule violations that seem to be mostly lack of sampling.
HERSHER: Basically, some of the test results that should be there are missing, which means it's impossible to know whether the high lead levels Rosario-Ortiz has found, both initially and in follow-up tests, are outliers or part of a larger problem. The data just don't exist even though it's required by federal law.
ERIK OLSON: Unfortunately, Puerto Rico has the worst record in the United States for drinking water safety.
HERSHER: Erik Olson is a drinking water lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
OLSON: Virtually everyone on the island is getting water from systems that violate testing or reporting requirements.
HERSHER: That's according to NPR's analysis of the most recent federal data reported by Puerto Rican water authorities between January 2015 and March 2018. Ninety-seven percent of Puerto Ricans are being served by a water system that's either failed to test for lead at least once or failed to notify residents of test results that could impact their health.
OLSON: And it's sort of a see-no-evil-speak-no-evil kind of situation where if you don't test the water as the law requires, you're not going to know if you have a big problem.
HERSHER: But the public official in charge of Puerto Rico's drinking water says the data makes the problem seem worse than it is. Eli Diaz-Atienza is the executive president of Puerto Rico's public water utility.
ELI DIAZ-ATIENZA: I would grade it as one of the best functioning systems in the U.S.
HERSHER: Diaz-Atienza acknowledges there is room for improvement when it comes to keeping up with water testing.
DIAZ-ATIENZA: Well, I think it's a problem that we're not doing testing. Yeah, I think it is a problem.
HERSHER: But he says a lot of the violations happen because unlike most parts of the U.S., water service in Puerto Rico is pretty unreliable a lot of the time. When the water is off, they don't test it. And he says despite missing data, the utility doesn't have any reason to believe it has a lead problem.
DIAZ-ATIENZA: We haven't seen situations of lead contamination in our system. Again, we don't have that much - you know, old - that type of piping.
HERSHER: That is, the water mains and the pipes at water treatment plants don't have lead in them, he says. But lead contamination doesn't have to come from public pipes. It can come from pipes inside people's homes. And to test for that, you have to test the water inside houses, houses like Carmen Lugo's.
CARMEN LUGO: (Speaking Spanish).
HERSHER: Carmen has three kids, and she says she doesn't let any of them drink the tap water.
LUGO: (Speaking Spanish).
HERSHER: What's she afraid of?
LUGO: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish). Everything?
LUGO: (Speaking Spanish).
HERSHER: "Everything," she says - bacteria, viruses, chemicals and lead. And indeed, an initial water test done by that scientist, Fernando Rosario-Ortiz and his team, showed lead levels in her home that are higher than the federal health threshold. Same with a handful of other homes of the dozens he's tested so far. Lead in the water is bad news for sure, but it's also good to know. A team from Interamerican University of Puerto Rico is working to get residents like Carmen water filters if they need them. But Rosario-Ortiz says although it's good for research, this kind of small-scale testing doesn't fix the underlying problem - years of public failure to make sure the water that comes out of people's taps is safe and that people know that, both by investing money and communicating with residents about their water quality.
ROSARIO-ORTIZ: The reality is, I think, there's also some long-term issues related to the distrust of, you know, water systems, water supply and - you know, ultimately, we need to deal with that as well.
HERSHER: The first step in restoring trust is cash. The federal government has approved more than $20 billion to rebuild Puerto Rico's housing and infrastructure. The EPA announced this week that it's funneling 10 million specifically to Puerto Rico's rural drinking-water systems, and the water authority is asking for 2 billion in budget over the next five years to make sure the water that comes out of Puerto Rican taps is safe. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.