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Who Knew What and When? City Officials to Testify Under Oath On NYCHA Arsenic Readings

City Council committees are seeking a clear explanation from public housing officials and Mayor Eric Adams about what exactly happened with the water at Jacob Riis Houses.

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City officials delivered water after arsenic was found in the drinking water in the East Village’s Jacob Riis Houses, Sept. 6, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The repercussions from positive arsenic readings at NYCHA’s Jacob Riis Houses in the Lower East Side continued Wednesday with the City Council announcing a hearing next week to put NYCHA and City Hall officials under oath to explain what happened.

Three separate council committee chairs will team up at a Sept. 23 joint hearing to get a clear explanation of how the public housing authority and Mayor Eric Adams first told Jacob Riis Houses tenants, 2,600 in all, that tests taken to determine the source of cloudy water there showed arsenic in their water.

Then a week later they turned around and said the tests were false positives and that there was no arsenic.

The hearing will seek to document who knew what, and when, and will be led by Public Housing Committee Chairperson Alexa Aviles, Environmental Protection Committee Chairperson Jim Gennar and Oversight and Investigations Committee Chairperson Gale Brewer.

Parallel to those hearings, the federal monitor overseeing NYCHA has teamed up with the city Department of Investigation to take a close look at what went on behind the scenes last week before, during, and after Riis residents were advised not to drink or cook with water from their taps until the system was flushed out and the water re-tested.

Mayor Adams has also promised to do his own investigation, saying he wasn’t told about the situation until a week after NYCHA knew about it.

The council hearing will be the first time officials will be required to make statements under oath. It’s not clear yet who will be attending, but the officials most involved in the situation at Riis include Chief Housing Officer Jessica Katz, NYCHA Chair Gregory Russ, Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan, and Environment Protection Commissioner Rohit Aggarwala, along with Mayor Adams himself.

Say What?

All except Adams were present Friday evening at a community meeting where 300 Riis tenants erupted in anger when Katz and Russ suddenly announced that there never was arsenic in the water at Riis.

Adams appeared there the next day, drinking water from a tap in a filmed appearance along with Vasan, and without any angry tenants. 

NYCHA officials are also scheduled to appear at another joint hearing that was scheduled before the Riis crisis and will be run by Aviles and Contracts Committee Chair Julie Won. 

That’s scheduled for Sept. 20 and will examine the authority’s “contracting and hiring processes,” Aviles said. That’s because when the city announced on Friday, Sept. 9 — a week after telling tenants arsenic may be in the water — that the test had produced a false positive, it blamed the Illinois lab hired by a contractor handling water issues for NYCHA.

NYCHA has been criticized in the past for problems obtaining bids from qualified contractors in a timely manner, including problems detailed by THE CITY about elevator contractors offering bids well above NYCHA’s estimated costs.

Also on Wednesday, Councilmember Aviles introduced several bills she said will increase both oversight of and transparency by NYCHA.

That includes a resolution calling for the state to pass a bill that would expand the City Council’s oversight of NYCHA. The bill — introduced in March by Assemblymember Edward Gibbs (D-East Harlem) — would give the council power to require that NYCHA produce reports regarding “any facts of its operations or the conditions of the projects under its management.”

The council would be able to regularly review the authority’s progress in addressing its “service goals, performance and management efficiency,” and hold at least one hearing a year on NYCHA’s overall progress.

That would include spelling out the status of conditions at NYCHA developments placed in the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. The properties at RAD developments are owned by NYCHA but managed by private sector developers.

“These bills won’t solve the crisis of public housing overnight. They may even be met with some resistance by the agency,” Aviles said, noting that state and federal governments have recently shown “a renewed interest in funding NYCHA’s capital backlog.”

“It’s high time to clarify the New York City Council’s role in overseeing NYCHA agency operations,” she said.

Meanwhile, the tenants at Riis remain skeptical of NYCHA and City Hall, unsure of what to believe. And, they note, the water there is still cloudy.

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