Federal monitor investigating how arsenic got into NYCHA’s water

Arsenic found in water at NYCHA complex
The mayor made an abruptly scheduled appearance to distribute water bottles at NYCHA’s Jacob Riis Houses on Friday night.
Photo via Twitter/@NYCMayor

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This article was originally published on by THE CITY

The discovery of arsenic in the tap water of a Lower East side public housing development, first reported by THE CITY on Friday evening, has raised questions about how NYCHA handled the testing and triggered an investigation by the federal monitor overseeing the authority.

Two weeks ago, after reports of cloudy water from residents, NYCHA received results declaring the water drinkable.

NYCHA then decided for reasons not yet explained to retest the water, and on Thursday those results, from the private water management company LiquiTech Inc., detected arsenic, which the earlier test had not checked for. But NYCHA sat on those results for 24 hours, and there was no public acknowledgement or warning until City Hall confirmed the arsenic finding on late Friday—after THE CITY began asking about it.

On Saturday the federal monitor who has jurisdiction over NYCHA announced he would be looking into the circumstances surrounding the testing at Riis.

“We are concerned and the monitorship is investigating,” said Montieth Illingworth, a spokesman for the monitor, Bart Schwartz. The monitor was appointed after the Manhattan U.S. Attorney in 2016 documented that NYCHA management had for years covered up squalid conditions endured by so many of the city’s 400,000 public housing residents.

On Saturday, the city Housing Authority began advising the 2,600 tenants of Riis not to drink or cook (though they can still bathe) with the water coming out of their taps. 

That came after NYCHA began trucking in cases of bottled water for drinking and cooking, with Mayor Eric Adams paying an emergency visit to the development after 10 p.m. to help distribute it. After midnight, the mayor’s office tweeted photos of him handing out water—but did not mention that arsenic-tainted tap water was the reason he’d been doing that.

‘We’re Not Getting No Information’

Tenants complained on Saturday that they had been kept in the dark about the testing prior to the mayor’s appearance. Many didn’t realize that Adams had been there until seeing news reports about his appearance the next day. 

“We’re not getting no information until the mayor came here last night,” said tenant Shaquane Mitchell, 49, who’s lived in Riis for 18 years. “I’m really trying to find out what’s going on because they’re not telling us anything.”

Mitchell was furious that she only learned of the arsenic finding from the news. She said she had to inform her elderly neighbor about what was going on. On Saturday morning, she found a letter from NYCHA revealing the arsenic finding and advising tenants not to drink the water.

“All of this month we’ve been drinking this water. I don’t know anything about arsenic. I’m getting scared thinking I’m drinking this water,” she said. “I’ve been having stomach issues… I thought it was just my food or something with my diet. But we don’t know.”

‘No Longer Cloudy’?

An internal NYCHA email obtained by THE CITY spelled out how, going forward, the authority plans to clean out the system at Riis and make the drinking water safe again. 

The email from a top NYCHA manager to staff revealed the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) was now fully involved.

“DOHMH wants us to advise resident(s) to not drink the water or use the water for cooking until the system is flushed and retested,” the email states. That involves running the taps in all apartments for 3 to 4 hours, the email stated.

After fully flushing the system, DOHMH advised NYCHA to re-test the water in each apartment. All of this likely means tenants at Riis will have no access to tap water through the Labor Day weekend, the email stated.

The email laid out the chronology of NYCHA’s attempt to respond to complaints about cloudy water at Riis that began on August 4 when U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez made her concerns about cloudy water known to top NYCHA officials. (On Saturday she tweeted that the arsenic situation “warrants further investigation.”) A week later, on August 11, WPIX aired a story about it, and the day after that, on August 12, NYCHA ordered up tests to figure out what was going on, but those tests — conducted by the city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and an outside vendor — looked for e-coli and chlorine, not arsenic.

Those results came back on August 16, declaring the water safe to drink. On the day after that, August 17, the email states that “Vendor took samples of water – visual assessment confirmed that the water was no longer cloudy.” And on the day after that, August 18, “NYCHA cleaned water tank in building where complaints were received,” triggering a round of complaints from elected officials about the shutoff. 

But despite the first test and the clear water, NYCHA decided for reasons that are still not clear to have it tested again, and more broadly—and on Friday that test showed a different result with traces of the poisonous heavy metal showed up in the drinking water “at levels deemed by federal standards to make the water unfit for drinking,” according to the statement City Hall released sent to THE CITY at 11:16 PM on Friday, an hour after the mayor’s abruptly scheduled appearance at Riis.  

On Saturday morning, THE CITY submitted questions to Mayor Adams’ press team about what triggered NYCHA to retest the water and look for arsenic this time when they hadn’t done that in mid-August. City Hall had not answered that email by Saturday evening. 

How arsenic got in the water remains a mystery. The internal NYCHA email indicates DOHMH believes the arsenic is likely getting into the water via the plumbing system.

“Because arsenic does not appear in NYC drinking water, they suspect there is an onsite source that needs to be flushed from the system,” the email notes.

DOHMH is also “very interested in any repairs going on at the property that could affect the plumbing system. They suspect backflow may have entered the system during repairs resulting in these exceedances.”

NYCHA officials are now checking with the teams handling the ongoing upgrades to Riis that date back 10 years to the flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy. And repair work is also underway on the heating system at the aging development, which opened in 1949.

On Friday, the DEP resampled the hydrants and taps at the development, hoping to produce results this weekend, according to the NYCHA email obtained by The City. DEP has yet to respond to THE CITY’s questions sent Friday about their role in this situation.

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