Members of the Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance voted on Tuesday to approve Bill 35-0190, which provides $350,000 in funding to distribute bottled water to residents in areas most affected by recently discovered heavy metal contamination.
Bill sponsor Senator Novelle Francis told his colleagues that despite the price freeze on water and related products currently in effect, “the average cost of the water being sold right now is…between $5 and sometimes even $10…imagine carrying the cost week after week and month after month with no relief.”
The proposed legislation, he said, was “an interim measure in an evolving situation.”
With the Department of Health initially tapped to lead the initiative, Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said that providing bottled water to affected residents “plays a vital step to protect public health, demonstrates government accountability, and ensures equitable treatment to every community member.”
V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency Assistant Director Steven DeBlasio Sr. said that work on figuring out how to get the water to residents is already underway. “The first option would be to create a voucher system that allows us to immediately distribute voucher or coupon booklets,” he said. That way, Mr. DeBlasio said, each of the 3,400 account-holders identified by the Water and Power Authority could “utilize the coupons to purchase water in the size and bottles most appropriate for their individual household use.” The cost of printing these vouchers, he told Senator Dwayne DeGraff in response to an inquiry, would be between $6000 and $7000.
The second option presented to lawmakers was for residents to be given gift cards or debit cards instead of coupons, and the third alternative would be to “physically distribute water at predetermined points of distribution,” Mr. DeBlasio noted. He told lawmakers that VITEMA supported the voucher option as the “most equitable and the most expedient solution” until filters being procured by WAPA arrive on island and are distributed.