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NYCHA Must Keep Paper Trail on Arsenic Incident, Monitor Orders

The federal overseer of the city’s public housing system demands all documentation be preserved, as it pursues investigation into toxic water at Manhattan’s Riis Houses.

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Construction work was being done at the Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, Feb. 2, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The federal monitor overseeing NYCHA has ordered the agency’s management not to destroy any documentation related to the discovery of arsenic in the water at a Lower East Side housing development and to preserve all related records going forward.

Federal Monitor Bart Schwartz on Saturday opened an investigation into NYCHA’s actions before tests the authority received Thursday registered levels of arsenic in the tap water at Riis “higher than the federal standard for drinking water.”

Tests ordered up by NYCHA in August declared the water at Riis drinkable, but did not include checking for arsenic. For reasons not yet clear, NYCHA then hired a new vendor for a retest and this time the results detected arsenic.

Late Saturday Joseph Jaffe, one of the monitor’s investigators, sent NYCHA’s chief compliance officer, Brad Greenburg, and the authority’s general counsel, Lisa Bova-Hiatt, a “request for preservation” letter as the first step in the unfolding probe.

“To ensure the integrity of any inquiry and for the safety of the residents now and in the future, we ask you to promptly confirm that you agree to suspend all document destruction, whether routine or otherwise, with respect to this issue,” the letter states. 

Jaffe requested that NYCHA management “preserve all documents related to this issue and to thereafter implement the document preservation” protocols requiring that any records related to the Riis arsenic situation be kept on hand and available to the monitor’s team. 

The documents requested cover a wide variety of records that would chronicle how NYCHA handled water testing at Riis this summer and perhaps explain in better detail what happened. 

Records requested include “electronic and paper communications, letters, memoranda, drafts, transmittals, notes, time lines, test results, email transmissions, texts, postings, voicemail, recorded conversations, etc., including all copies, whether duplicative or not.” 

The monitor was appointed following a 2016 investigation by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney that found NYCHA management had for years covered up unhealthy and unsafe conditions such as lead paint, toxic mold and vermin infestations in many of the authority’s 175,000 apartments. 

The turmoil at Riis began behind the scenes Thursday when NYCHA management received a report from the vendor it had hired to retest Riis’ water that detected traces of arsenic in the tap water. But the authority did not tell the public or tenants at Riis about it until late Friday, and only after THE CITY began asking questions about it Friday afternoon. 

Mayor Eric Adams then suddenly added an event to his public schedule, announcing he would be visiting Riis after 10 p.m. Friday to hand out bottled water. After midnight he tweeted photos of himself doing that, but did not reveal the arsenic findings in either the announcement or the tweet. 

Late Friday after Adams had handed out the water, a mayoral spokesperson, Charles Lutvak, released a statement stating that “preliminary results received today from retesting showed arsenic levels higher than the federal standard for drinking water.”

Actually, the test results had been received more than 24 hours earlier. 

On Sunday, Lutvak amended that statement, for the first time claiming the retesting results “left open the possibility of potential contaminants, including arsenic.” Lutvak now said the results “were found to be questionable, so we have and are continuing to run multiple additional tests.” 

He said on Sunday the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) performed new tests that “did not detect arsenic from the water source entering the building” where arsenic was detected in tests performed last week.

He added that NYCHA is awaiting results of additional testing of water “collected in apartments, roof tanks, and other locations today, and we are pushing to get results as soon as possible.” 

Meanwhile, the city Department of Health & Mental Hygiene has advised the 2,600 residents of Riis not to drink or cook with the tap water until the system can be flushed and retested. 

According to an internal NYCHA email obtained by THE CITY, DOHMH doesn’t believe the contaminant emanates from the water supply but is somehow coming from the plumbing system at Riis itself. 

A key concern for DOHMH is whether construction from ongoing work related to damage inflicted 10 years ago by Superstorm Sandy, as well as current work on the development’s heating system, have stirred up the soil and contributed to the contamination of the water.

“They suspect backflow may have entered the system during repairs, resulting in these exceedances,” the email stated.

Riis and two other NYCHA developments to its south, the Wald Houses and the Baruch Houses, abut the FDR Drive and are across the street from a major city project to create a flood-resistant buffer in East River Park.

The project is opposed by some neighborhood groups that on Saturday speculated that toxins found in the soil within that project, including arsenic, could have somehow leached into the adjacent public housing development.

Lutvak of the mayor’s office attacked this theorizing, writing in an emailed response to THE CITY, “DEP has been testing the city’s water supply and confirmed it is safe to drink. If there are elevated arsenic levels, it is specific to Riis.”

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