Brown water flows from tap in Contant neighborhood homes
Published: October 11, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - José Morel buys five cases of water a week, despite the fact that he pays the V.I. Water and Power Authority almost $100 a month for potable water.
Because the water that comes out of his tap is brown.
Standing in his kitchen, he fills a glass from the sink. The water is yellow.
In the bathroom, the water that comes out of the shower head discolors the tile.
He keeps a bucket with store-bought water in his shower so his family can bathe with clean water.
His latest WAPA water bill was $97.33. "For that water? My God," he said.
He is not alone. Many of the residents in his Contant neighborhood have similar complaints.
Robert Callwood, a pastor at El Oasis Church in Contant, said he put in a filter system at his house to combat the problem. The spent filters were clogged with thick, rust-colored sediment in just a few months. After almost a year of using the filter, Callwood said he did not notice a significant difference.
"Sometimes in the morning, we can't even use it at all, it's that bad," Callwood said. "It looks like coffee coming out of there."
The water stains the wash basins and the shower, he said. He had to throw away some of his white clothing that was ruined by the water in the washing machine.
"It never comes out," he said about the stains.
Callwood's mother, Ilia Caraballo, has given up and only uses her cistern, a luxury not everyone has in the Contant area.
Shana George, a mother of three young children, lives in a large apartment complex in Contant. She has been taking pictures and video of the discolored water for more than a year, but she said her complaints to WAPA seem to fall on deaf ears. When she calls, customer service transfers her to the water division, where she gets a voice mail and no one ever returns her calls, she said.
"My kids have gotten ringworm from it," she said. "When the water is brown, I have to use bottled water to bathe them."
She said the only thing anyone at WAPA has ever told her is to run the water and wait for it to clear before using it. However, she said it takes an hour or two of running it to clear and she pays for each gallon of brown water that runs down the drain.
She does not drink it.
"I don't even cook with it," George said.
Wilfredo Burgos said his daughter went to WAPA and complained to an employee about the brown water coming into her apartment, despite having a filter.
"He said to change the filter more often," Burgos said.
WAPA spokeswoman Jerain Fleming said the water department is flushing the lines on a regular basis to improve the water quality. The only advice she could give to residents is to run the water for a while to clear it.
"We know it's really annoying for our customers to do that," she said.
Noel Hodge, director of water distribution for St. Thomas and St. John, said problems with the potable water system began in 2011, when the desalination system went down and many areas had severe water rationing for months.
"Because pipes were empty, it was a real bad situation," he said. "The system is not meant to operate like that."
To address the water production issue, WAPA contracted Seven Seas to operate temporary reverse osmosis units. The permanent Seven Seas reverse osmosis plant was completed in August.
WAPA has entered into a 20-year agreement to buy the water from Seven Seas, reducing WAPA's costs and creating savings that the utility said will be passed on to the consumer.
Hodge said the problem is that the switch from desalinated water to water made by reverse osmosis - forcing sea water through membranes to filter out the salt - changed the chemistry of the water. The new water is reacting with the old iron pipes, causing the brown water, he said.
"It's a different chemistry. This water has more minerals in it," Hodge said. "But it is tested and meets drinking water standards from the EPA."
Samples to be tested are taken from several points in the system, including on the consumer's end, Hodge said.
"Within six months to a year, the system will adjust to new water chemistry," he said.
In the meantime, WAPA workers are flushing out the pipes regularly.
"We're going in there and flushing, installing hydrants so we can get areas flushed properly," Hodge said. "If there are any new areas, customers have to call in and let us know."
However, some areas at the end of the pipeline are hard to flush out, he said.
"When we have the dead-end areas, the water is not able to circulate through a loop," Hodge said. "Which is the case in Contant, Garden Street, Savan and some areas in the country."
Ideally, WAPA should replace the old iron pipes, Hodge said.
"We don't have the money to replace all the pipes at this point," he said.
Hodge would not say whether people should drink the discolored water that comes out of the faucet.
"People can let it run for a while until it gets clear," he said. "I guess people when they are accustomed to nice clear water, wouldn't want to drink this here until we get it flushed."
To report a problem with WAPA's water, contact the water division at 775-5873.
- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.