GSA orders probe into FEMA drinking water left on airport runway
SAN JUAN – The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration issued a release late Wednesday about the millions of bottles of water donated by the federal government that remained stockpiled on an airport runway on the island and can no longer be used.
Puerto Rico General Services Administrator Ottmar Chávez said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “reported it had an excess of bottled water in April 2018 and GSA made an application to take custody that was approved and executed upon in May 2018 through the U.S. GSA Surplus Property program.”
In total, GSA claimed around 20,000 pallets of excess, undistributed bottled water, the release reads.
“GSA took control of the inventory in May 2018 before I took over the agency’s functions. Deliveries to two municipalities and the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Puerto Rico (WIPR) began that same month and continued through August 2018. After delivering more than 700 pallets, my agency received several complaints from the municipality of Barceloneta and the Corporation for Public Dissemination regarding the smell and taste of the water received from FEMA,” Chávez added. “Based on those complaints, we contacted FEMA to return the water to the federal GSA inventory.”
Public Security Secretary Héctor Pesquera said that, based on the available documentation, “at no time was it noted that the bottled water was out in the open,” according to the Federal Affairs Administration.
“When GSA performed its merchandise survey, U.S. GSA photographs appeared to show bottled water in a warehouse. We do not know when FEMA moved the inventory to the Roosevelt Roads Base in Ceiba,” Pesquera said, adding that “the Government of Puerto Rico never received the water from FEMA for distribution during the emergency, and it was not until April 2018 that we were notified of its availability.”
Chávez has ordered an internal administrative investigation to identify any processes that could have been improved and said “corresponding actions” will be taken “as needed.”
They will be looking to learn why no one warned that the water was on one of the runways of the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Ceiba.
In a statement obtained by CBS News, Carlos Mercader, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said the “water bottles currently in Ceiba were not delivered to the Government of Puerto Rico to give out during an emergency since it was under FEMA’s custody and it wasn’t until April 2018 that the Government was notified that it was excess inventory that could be requested.”
He added that a “career official from GSA requested the excess water without informing supervisors,” and that on April 26, FEMA gave GSA the pallets.
However, “FEMA had moved the bottled water to the landing strip that is managed by the federal government in Ceiba (Puerto Rico),” but the “Government of Puerto Rico does not have control over the federal land where these bottles were placed. The Government of Puerto Rico did not transport these bottles to their current, exposed location.”
On May 24, he further wrote, “FEMA asks the Government of Puerto Rico when they could pick up the water bottles. The Government responds that it will pick it up between the 30th and 31st of May,” and on the “30th of May, the Government of Puerto Rico goes for the first time to the landing strip to pick up the water bottles. The merchandise was distributed to different municipalities, including Barceloneta, Lares, San Sebastián and Yauco.”
From May 30 until Aug. 12, municipalities and other government entities received a total of 732 pallets of water, the statement reads, after which the “Government received complaints by the Municipality of Barceloneta and an agency of the Government that indicated the water had a foul odor and had a bad taste.”
Given the complaints, Mercader said, “the Government decided not to continue using the water bottles provided by FEMA in order to carry out tests and give it back to the federal government.”
He added that FEMA “should have…given out the water during the emergency, since it was under their possession”; declared the water “as excess inventory before April 2018”; and stored the water “properly at all times.”
Puerto Rico’s GSA, he said, “assumes responsibility for requesting “an amount of merchandise it could not handle in a timely manner” and receiving “merchandise that was not apt for consumption.”
FEMA reportedly said it was the local government’s job to distribute the water.