Mayor Eric Adams is now claiming tests show there’s no arsenic in the water at a Lower East Side public housing development — but the New York City Housing Authority has been flushing out the taps before administering the updated tests.
Mayor Adams and NYCHA first let the public and tenants of the Jacob Riis Houses know about the arsenic test results shortly before midnight on Sept. 2, three days after an environmental firm hired by NYCHA found levels of arsenic in the water there that made the water undrinkable.
Since then, the Adams administration has repeatedly issued statements declaring that subsequent tests show no trace of arsenic in the water at Riis. But the statements do not reveal that NYCHA is first flushing out the taps before taking samples — turning on faucets and letting the water first flow for three to four hours first.
In response to THE CITY’s questions about testing after flushing out the system, mayoral spokesperson Charles Lutvak replied via email, “The system was flushed at the recommendation of DOHMH [the cityDepartment of Health and Mental Hygiene]. That step was taken after the water supply entering the building was determined to be free of arsenic in order to understand if something in the building was responsible for putting arsenic into the water inside the building.”
He added: “If the system is flushed and then the water continues to be clean, you can conclude that there is no issue. This is what helps us reach the conclusion that we faced a likely false positive.”
But Assemblymember Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan), whose district includes Riis, said this strategy will prevent NYCHA from knowing the full scope of the contamination.
“They could have tested it before it was flushed, and instead they test it after,” Epstein, who said he’s been hounding Adams’ team for straight answers since the crisis erupted last week, told THE CITY on Thursday. “They’re flushing everything, so what if [arsenic] reappears in a month?”
A community meeting is scheduled to take place Friday at P.S. 34, at East 12th Street and Avenue D next to Riis. Officials from City Hall, NYCHA, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and DOHMH have been invited to attend.
The discovery of the poisonous material in Riis’ tap water has raised questions about how long different parts of Adams administration — including City Hall, NYCHA, DEP and DOHMH — knew about the test results before letting the 2,600 tenants who live there know about them.
Adams first announced the findings after 11 p.m. on Friday, several hours after THE CITY first began asking about the tainted water. That night and into the next morning, city health officials began urging tenants not to drink or cook with the water until it could be flushed out, retested and deemed safe.
That strategy, however, means that NYCHA may never know the extent of the problem, and without that information it may be impossible to figure out how arsenic got in there in the first place, Epstein argued.
Late Wednesday, Lutvak issued another statement touting the latest test results — without making clear the city was testing a system that had already been flushed out.
He also revealed that NYCHA had received what he called “belated” test results that had also detected legionella bacteria in the water at Riis.
Legionella can cause a pneumonia-like illness commonly known as Legionnaires’ Disease. Several years ago, NYCHA was forced to test water tanks at some developments after tenants were diagnosed with the illness.
On Thursday, Adams questioned the validity of both the original arsenic results and the legionella results, both of which came from the same firm, LiquiTech, an environmental company NYCHA hired in 2019 under competitive bidding to handle water quality issues in the developments. (LiquiTech did not respond to THE CITY’s questions Thursday).
“We questioned that because that was the same lab that gave us the questionable results before,” the mayor said. “But out of an overabundance of caution, we continue to give [bottled] water. We’re going to do the test to make sure before we tell residents to drink water again that comes from their tap. We want to be 100% sure. But we also want to be 100% transparent.”
Epstein has asked NYCHA to preserve the water samples that tested positive for arsenic above levels deemed acceptable by the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA). He asked them to hire another firm to retest those samples, but NYCHA and City Hall have so far not agreed to do that.
So far neither NYCHA nor City Hall has released the actual test result records, and it’s not clear how long NYCHA had been concerned about the presence of arsenic at Riis before the results came in. The agency had been trying to address tenant concerns about cloudy water there since at least July.
On Aug. 16, NYCHA got test results from DEP declaring the water at Riis to be drinkable, but the test did not include an inquiry about arsenic. At some point after that, NYCHA requested tests for other substances — including arsenic.
It wasn’t until two weeks later, on Aug. 29, that LiquiTech, NYCHA’s water quality test vendor, discovered the presence of unspecified metals in the water at Riis. The next day, Aug. 30, LiquiTech obtained samples from six separate locations in two Riis buildings across East 10th Street from one another. That included at least three taken from kitchen sinks in separate apartments.
On Aug. 31, five of the six samples tested positive for unacceptable levels of arsenic, with the sixth right on the line of what the EPA says is acceptable. It’s not clear when NYCHA learned of these results, but tenants weren’t told anything about them until late Friday, Sept. 2.
The federal monitor overseeing NYCHA has opened an investigation into how the Riis water issue has been handled, asking the authority executives to preserve all documents and communications related to the events leading up to the discovery of the contaminant.
Epstein — who is considering holding public hearings on the Riis mess — says the lack of clarity on what happened makes assigning blame impossible at this point, but that someone must be held accountable.
“I do think there’s a problem at NYCHA. Someone screwed up,” he said. “Or the question is if it’s just a problem with NYCHA or is it a problem with everything that’s happened in the process?”