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Flirting with another disaster: Puerto Ricans tap into potentially unsafe water

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03:16 - Source: CNN
Puerto Ricans struggle to find drinking water
Dorado, Puerto Rico CNN —  

A tall chain link fence, shrouded in vines, surrounds an aging water well tucked away in this small town just west of San Juan. A metal sign carries a warning in Spanish to anyone who approaches: “Danger. Do Not Enter.”

That doesn’t stop Juan Carlos Oquendo, 39, from peeling away a corner of the fence and jumping inside. He’s brought a van load of containers to fill.

But what he doesn’t fully understand is that water from the faucet is potentially contaminated with industrial chemicals that can cause serious health issues.

“I’m going to drink it. I’ve drank it before. It tastes fine,” Oquendo told CNN as he filled his jugs. “If I don’t drink water I’m going to die. So I might as well drink this water.”

Oquendo stresses that he’s willing to take this chance because access to clean water in his neighborhood has been extremely difficult for much of the last month since Hurricane Maria wiped out the water system on the island.

Just before CNN spotted Oquendo at the water well site, a team of scientists from the US Environmental Protection Agency was collecting water samples from the well.

The EPA is focused on this site because the well sits on what’s called the Dorado Groundwater Contamination Site, which was listed in 2016 as a Superfund site in Puerto Rico. The area is polluted with industrial chemicals, including tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene, “can have serious health impacts including damage to the liver and increasing the risk of cancer,” the EPA said when it designated the site as contaminated.

Gary Lipson, the EPA Incident Commander working in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, says nearby residents have been drinking potentially contaminated water from this well.

“It’s a concern both in public health and perception. We understand that people are hurting right now. We understand there are a lot of thirsty people out there, and they are accessing whatever water they can,” Lipson told CNN. “We are trying to ascertain if it poses any hazards or not.”

The EPA has “provided information to the Dorado community emphasizing that they must avoid using wells on the western portion of the site,” the agency said in a statement Sunday.

That is the same area where CNN saw Oquendo tapping into a well.

EPA teams gathered water samples this weekend from at least six wells inside the Dorado Superfund site. A series of tests will determine the contamination levels.

EPA officials say the results could be made public by the end of the week.