As the number of tenant complaints about cloudy water began to skyrocket at the Jacob Riis Houses this summer, a top NYCHA executive decided the tap water there needed to be tested.
But instead of ordering up an expedited test, which would have yielded results within 24 hours, NYCHA Chief Operating Officer Eva Trimble decided there was no need to rush things.
As a result, weeks went by from when the water was first sampled to when NYCHA says it was first told that arsenic had been detected in the water at Riis. And then, NYCHA delayed telling tenants and the public about the results for yet another week.
The portrait of NYCHA’s slow-walk response to the rapid and alarming spike in water quality complaints emerged during a tense City Council hearing Friday held by Oversight and Investigations Committee Chair Gale Brewer and Public Housing Chair Alexa Aviles.
It was the first time top NYCHA officials were placed under oath over the positive arsenic tests, and it was the first time elected officials got a chance to challenge NYCHA’s assertion that they handled the water crisis at Riis as best they could.
On Sept. 2, NYCHA suddenly announced tests showed arsenic in the water at Riis, and then a week later they said the tests were flawed and there was never any arsenic in the water. In the meantime the city Health Department had been advising tenants not to drink or cook with the water.
Tenants lived in fear for a week and now didn’t know who to believe.
Frustrated by NYCHA’s response, residents swarmed Friday’s hearing seeking answers. But initially, dozens of tenants who wanted to testify were barred from entering the overcrowded tiny room at 250 Broadway where the hearing was to take place.
After a shouting match that included a bit of shoving, the hearing was relocated to the expansive council chambers at City Hall.
Adding to the lack of trust in the housing authority’s response, Chairman Gregory Russ was a no-show at the hearing.
Instead, NYCHA’s newly appointed interim Chief Executive Officer Lisa Bova-Hiatt—who had been the authority’s general council before she replaced Russ as CEO last week while he remained on as chairman—tried to calm the waters with a belated mea culpa.
“I don’t want to leave the Council with the impression that I think NYCHA did everything right. We did not,” she admitted. “We know that this was a very disturbing and upsetting experience for residents and we are truly sorry it happened.”
But several elected officials went after NYCHA for not responding to the water crisis faster.
Trimble testified that she first requested water testing in Building 11 at Riis on Aug. 12, choosing that building because of the concentration of complaints there and the presence of a water tank serving half the development on its roof.
She then admitted that she wasn’t told the result of that test until Aug. 29. Questioned about this delay by Public Housing Committee Chair Aviles, Trimble admitted, “We had been following up, but no, we did not explicitly request expedited results.”
At the time Trimble asked for the testing, the number of water quality complaints had been steadily rising, peaking at 21 the week of July 31 to Aug. 6. By then Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez had contacted the housing authority to demand an explanation.
The week after Trimble ordered up the tests, without asking for an expedited result, the number of complaints hit 18.
Public Advocate Jumanne Williams, who joined in interrogation at the hearing, noted that the initial response took weeks, but once a test indicated the presence of arsenic, all the subsequent tests were fast-tracked.
“Why was the decision made not to rush the tests earlier?” he asked.
Trimble responded “The state of rush was not put on it. We did not have any reason to expect the results we got. I did not ask for it to be rushed other than to follow up several times.”
“If there’s a question about water,” Williams responded, “we should rush it.”
NYCHA also confirmed THE CITY’s report that a pump steering water to the rooftop tank on top of Building 11 died at the same time the complaints were spiking in mid-July.
Trimble said the pump wasn’t fixed until Aug. 15.
At the hearing NYCHA for the first time said they now believe that the pump failure triggered the entire arsenic debacle.
“We do now think that the pump in Building 11 was the source of the cloudy water complaints,” Trimble said, noting that most of the complaints were associated with Riis Buildings that relied on the Building 11 tank.
And a week after the pump was fixed, she said, “That’s when the water complaints start to decrease.”
Trimble also admitted that even though a different NYCHA department had discovered the Building 11 pump problem by mid-July, she was unaware of it when she ordered up the initial water tests at Building 11.
Some council members also questioned why NYCHA relied on the same Illinois-based testing firm, Liquitech, to handle the retest Aug. 30 when they now claim the initial results seemed suspect. During the hearing Daniel Greene, head of NYCHA’s Healthy Homes unit that oversees quality of life issues, admitted he would have asked another firm to step in.
Several council members were appalled that NYCHA Chairman Russ was a no-show. Bova-Hiatt had to admit that it was Russ himself who decided he would not attend.
As to Russ’ actual whereabouts Friday, NYCHA could not say. Since his appointment in 2019, Russ has continued to live in Minneapolis and commutes back and forth at NYCHA’s expense.
Asked where the chairman was, Bova-Hiatt replied, “Mr. Russ is not here in New York and I cannot tell you where he is.”