Minister Lee: Public health not at risk

Minister of Health, Social Affairs and Labour Emil Lee


PHILIPSBURG – Minister of Public Health, Social Development and Labor Emil Lee in Wednesday’s, June 14, Council of Ministers Press Briefing first addressed the issue of possible contamination of the drinking water in St. Maarten after a statement was made by the Inspectorate.

“Indeed some hotels on the island have tested positive for Legionella, which can happen based on various causes. Those that were tested positive do have a program to follow to ensure that contamination is prevented, and the inspectorate in the hotels are working very well together to ensure that the laws are adhered to and that public safety is protected,” Minister Lee stated.

The Minister emphasized that “at no time was there a public health risk, otherwise the Inspectorate would then adopt a policy where they would inform the public whenever there is a public health risk.”

“However, the hotels, based on some of the results that they were seeing, and seeing that the results were fairly widespread and not contained to a particular location on the island, some of the hotels began testing the water that they were receiving directly to the property and found some inconsistencies,” Minister Lee went on to explain.

“That then triggered a discussion with the Inspectorate where we initiated a quick snapshot of the water that’s being distributed around St. Maarten and there were some points of concern,” the Minister said.

“Again, I want to be sure that we don’t create any hysteria,” Minister Lee stressed. “At no point is there any public health risk, otherwise the public would be informed. It’s also important to mention that we are still very much in the process of investigation and understanding what exactly is happening, and we’re in dialogue with GEBE,” he continued.

“So it’s a bit premature, but given the fact that the topic is out for discussion, I think it’s important to clarify what we’re working on. There were some snapshot tests done. Normally the tests involved more of the distribution tank, but we felt that it was important to see what was happening within the distribution system as well, and I want to stress no public health risks at this time, but there are parameters that are specified within the law, and we found that some of those parameters are not being adhered to,” the Minister explained.

“In particular, one of the points of concern is about the level of chlorine in the water. By law there’s a certain minimum level as well as a higher level of chlorine that by law is supposed to be within the drinking water. Chlorine is a sanitizer that is added to the water to ensure that we don’t get bacterial growth within the water, and to make sure that the drinking water is safe for consumption,” the Minister informed.

“Another thing that we found is that the PH level was fairly high. The PH level, although it’s not a public health parameter, one of the consequences of a high level of PH is that it will consume more chlorine, so it would make the maintaining of proper levels of chlorine in the water an issue. So we’ve met with GEBE. We’ve expressed the findings of the snapshot evaluation of the distribution system, informed them that there are some concerns, and in addition to that have issued to them a number of concerns based on our meeting,” Minister Lee stated.

“There were a number of agreements that were made, in particular with regard to the testing of the water in regard to the frequency of the sampling and also to clearly state that they must adhere to the guidelines, the parameters for the quality of water within our distribution system,” the Minister continued.

The Minister also updated on the progress regarding the hospital financing. “There’s a couple of parties that are interested, in particular APS and SZV, and they have a due diligence process that takes time and that’s a process that we don’t interfere with,” Minister Lee said.

“I think that some of the negative publicity from St. Maarten regarding the fact that the hospital project was on hold, and that in essence our health care system was being held hostage by a court case,” the Minster continued.

According to Minister Lee, that public relations campaign is exactly what drove the company to the negotiating table because “as a large multinational company, I don’t believe they enjoyed the negative publicity about a small Caribbean island being held hostage in a court case system.”

“The progress on the hospital is proceeding well and the design phase is continuing. I believe it was last week the number of representatives from the hospital and the design team met to go over the drawings. We want to make sure that we build a hospital for an affordable price. The best way to do it is to make sure that the design is correct,” Minister Lee informed.

“Every time you have a change in design, it always adds time to the project and costs to the project. So our goal is to make sure that we have a hospital that, once it’s on paper, sees very little changes because that’s the best way to do it efficiently and effectively, and while the financiers are working on their evaluations I don’t think any media press will help them to expedite that process, but we are hoping that by the end of July, beginning of August at the latest, we have a final conclusion to our financing for the hospital and can move forward,” Minister Lee concluded.