Dozens of pumping stations do not work due to lack of electricity and they have to carry the contaminated water in trucks
The Aqueduct and Sewer Authority trying to ensure that wastewater entering the sanitation system reaches the treatment plants, given the faults that still exist in some 64 pumping stations.
The problem, like many others that afflict Puerto Rico after the passage of Hurricane Maria, is largely due to the absence of electricity service and failures in emergency generators that, by federal provision, are supposed to have plants and stations that serve to push wastewater to treatment plants, explained the president of the AAA, Elí Díaz Atienza.
To mitigate the situation, the AAA is using trucks to transport the used water from the pumping stations to the treatment plants and moving generators from the energized stations to those that have operational problems.
“We have over 700 sanitary pump stations and like 64 still do not have generators. We are moving generators there because they have been damaged or have to be replaced. Now what we do is take the water in trucks to those stations that are not working, “the official said in an interview with El Nuevo Día last week. He assured people that the contamination by water used at this moment is minimal since they have finished putting in new operation in all the treatment plants.The last one to be put into operation was the Ciales plant.
The hurricane balance
Three months ago, however, the picture was completely different. In fact, just after hurricane Maria struck, only 22 of the treatment plants were functional.
In the same way, a large part of the infrastructure collapsed. In Utuado, for example, a landslide took a complete section of a sanitary pipe and the water used discharged a tributary of the Río Grande de Arecibo. In Comerío, on the other hand, a flood of a body of water took a sanitary trunk. These pipes are the main ones in the system and carry the largest volume of water used to the treatment plants. These major breakdowns caused by Hurricane Maria were corrected, according to Díaz Atienza.
Contaminated water was used
Carl Soderberg, former head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explained that a good part of the wastewater that was generated in the first weeks after the cyclone ended up in the bodies of water
Precisely, in those moments, the rivers and springs in Puerto Rico became important sources of water for those affected by the hurricane, despite doubts about the potability of the water.
“This type of discharge pollutes more bodies of water. Many people, faced with scarcity, went to the rivers to bathe and wash clothes. They even took water there instead of the oasis, “said Soderberg.
Brenda Torres, executive director of the San Juan Bay Estuary Program, explained that in mid-October they began to sample water throughout the watershed that supplies them and the levels of contaminants were high until the beginning of December. These are bacteria harmful to health that leave the digestive systems of humans and can cause infections in the urine, diverticuli and meningitis, among other diseases. The presence of these microbes reflects the contamination of water bodies by wastewater, explained Torres.
Soderberg, on the other hand, recalled cases such as Dorado, a town where the wastewater treatment plant was completely covered by the flooding of the La Plata River. The flooding, with all the pollutants that it could drag, reached densely populated areas, such as Levittown, in Toa Baja.
The situation, in addition to affecting the health of people, has negative effects on the tourism industry – which is struggling to reestablish itself – and the environment in general.
“This last week we did not have the bacteria”.
This type of sampling is also done on the beaches of Puerto Rico. The most recent report from the Beach Monitoring Program of the Environmental Quality Board shows that the shorelines of Arecibo Pier, Alambique in Carolina and Tropical Beach in Naguabo do not comply with water quality parameters.Much of this pollution responds to discharges of water used in watersheds.
It needs energy
The executive director of the San Juan Bay Estuary Project estimated that the pollution began to decrease as the energized zones increased, which is consistent with the AAA’s need for electricity to move its sewer system.
“There is a direct relationship between energization and water quality. Since we started to see the studies, we see how water bodies are changing to a green flag, “Torres said.
However, the spokeswoman for the San Juan Bay Estuary Program indicated that the fragility of the system may cause pollutants in water bodies to rise again in a heavy rain event.
There are several factors that contribute to this.
Torres explained that there is still infrastructure to be repaired, especially in mountainous areas that are difficult to access. The pollutants that are released in these damages are dragged to the bodies of water and the sea during the downpours.
Soderberg, meanwhile, added that in Puerto Rico there are many communities that do not depend on sewerage to channel sanitary waters, but use septic tanks, many of which do not comply with basic environmental protection standards.
Soderberg recalled that these systems, in many cases, do not have enough filters and disinfection systems to ensure potability, a risk that increases considerably after a natural disaster like Hurricane Maria.
“In Puerto Rico there are about 200,000 people who do not receive AAA’s drinking water service or have community systems. I know there were efforts to bring them solar energy to power the systems they have. In normal times, most of these systems do not comply with regulations and at times like this the risk is greater. It worries me because those bodies are contaminated with the discharges and with the wells mostly do not comply. Because the systems are so primitive, most do not have a filtration phase or the disinfection is intermittent, “Soderberg said.