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Tenants and Critics Demand Answers as City Hall Says Test Showing Arsenic in the Water at the Jacob Riis Houses Was a ‘False Reading’

NYCHA and the city still haven’t explained when they first became concerned about potential contamination, or why it took three days for the results to be made public.

SHARE Tenants and Critics Demand Answers as City Hall Says Test Showing Arsenic in the Water at the Jacob Riis Houses Was a ‘False Reading’

Jacob Riis Houses residents erupt into cheers when a resident implores them to vote the current city officials out of office after arsenic was found in their water supply, Sept. 9, 2022.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Eight days after warning tenants of NYCHA’s Jacob Riis Houses not to drink the water after tests showed arsenic in it, City Hall officials reversed course on Friday evening, facing an auditorium full of 300 angry tenants to proclaim that the lab results from the housing authority’s water quality test vendor were wrong and that there is no arsenic.

The audience erupted, with tenants shouting that they don’t know what to believe after being whipsawed back and forth over eight days, beginning on the Friday night of Labor Day weekend, that left them furious and exhausted.

“This one week has felt like an eternity,” said Riis tenant Dianna Fernandez. “Water is essential. NYCHA needs to do better. Mayor Adams: Where are you?”

Mayor Eric Adams was in Washington trying to woo the Democratic National Committee to hold its convention in New York, but Housing Authority Chairman Gregory Russ was present, facing the angry crowd and quickly becoming the target of much of the room’s explosive anger.

“Now we must apologize to you for the last eight days,” Russ shouted as residents, many of whom are all too familiar with NYCHA’s longstanding history of deception, loudly cursed and berated him.

“Why did we choose to do this?” he said at one point. “Because we did not want a situation where if there was some kind of contamination, that you felt like, ‘Well holy hell, how come they didn’t say anything to me?’”

“Now that we know the cause of the false reading, we can say in all honesty there is no arsenic in the water,” Russ said and tried to continue, but he was shouted down.

Minutes earlier Jessica Katz, Adams’ chief housing officer, had tried in vain to be heard above the din and explain that the lab firm that initially found levels of arsenic in Riis’ tap water had retested the original samples and on Friday retracted the earlier results.

“There is no arsenic in the water at Riis and there never was,” Katz said after tenant leaders managed to quiet the crowd. “We know that over the years NYCHA has lost your trust and that is why we had to go above and beyond.”

Whether tenants believed Katz or Russ remains to be seen.

Jacob Riis Houses resident Juan Pagan tells fellow residents to vote city officials for arsenic-water chaos. Sept. 9, 2022.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

“We’re not accepting anything but we have to listen,” shouted Damaris Reyes, director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), a housing advocacy group working with the Riis tenants. She told THE CITY after the meeting that tenant leaders and several elected officials plan to hire an independent environmental consultant to go over all the test results.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who attended the raucous tenant meeting, where another 100 tenants gathered outside because they couldn’t fit into the packed meeting room, condemned NYCHA for bungling the water testing situation at Riis.

“NYCHA has again failed a test of its management,” he said. “Tenants who have lived with fear for the last week, and cloudy water weeks before that, need full answers and accountability.”

In a joint statement, multiple city officials blasted NYCHA and the mayor’s office for this last-minute sea change in the narrative at Riis.

Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Lower Manhattan), Public Housing Committee Chair Alexa Avilés (D-Brooklyn), and Oversight and Investigations Committee Chair Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), wrote that, “The conflicting reports of water contamination at Riis Houses raise more questions that need to be answered, leaving the residents understandably concerned and outraged. The Council intends to conduct oversight to ensure transparency and clarity regarding water quality and safety for all residents of NYCHA.”

Unanswered Questions

Friday evening’s community hearing had been called not by NYCHA but by Riis Tenant Association President Daphne Williams, to get answers to lingering questions about the reported discovery of arsenic in their tap water that NYCHA now says was never there.

The saga began shortly before midnight last Friday, when the mayor first revealed test results showing the toxic heavy metal in the water at Riis and made a hastily scheduled appearance there to pass out bottled water — hours after THE CITY asked NYCHA and City Hall about the then unreported test.   

Immediately, questions arose about when officials at NYCHA and other city agencies first became concerned about potential contamination of the water at Riis, and why it took three days for the results of the test to be made public.

Over the following days, the mayor’s office has released nearly daily statements saying subsequent testing of the water there found “no discernable trace of arsenic.” Those tests, however, were only made after NYCHA had flushed the pipes by running the taps for three to four hours in each apartment.

About half an hour before the community meeting was set to kick off, Adams’ Press Secretary Fabien Levy released a statement declaring the lab that tested the samples in late August and then again on Sept. 1 had somehow tainted the samples with arsenic, along with a one-page document from the firm, Environmental Monitoring & Technologies of Illinois (EMT), in which they said they had retested the original samples that tested positive and now found no trace of arsenic. The lab then formally retracted the original results.

On Friday, however, NYCHA and City Hall continued to advise tenants not to drink or cook with the water until more tests that are still pending rule out what Katz described as other “non-typical” contaminants.

She said she expects those results Saturday.

‘All Available Legal Options’

Tenant complaints about cloudy water at Riis had been ongoing throughout the summer. On Aug. 16, NYCHA got test results back stating that the water was drinkable. But the lab had not checked for metals, and new tests were ordered up.

Katz told THE CITY on Friday that City Hall does not know why NYCHA requested the further testing. On Aug. 29, LiquiTech, an environmental firm hired by NYCHA in 2019 to handle water quality issues in the developments, took a water sample at Riis.

Liquitech sent the samples to EMT, and their test found the presence of unspecified metals.

The next day, Aug. 30, Liquitech took samples from six separate locations in two separate buildings at Riis. On Aug. 31, EMT’s test results showed levels of arsenic at levels deemed unacceptable by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in five of the six samples. The sixth sample was right on the EPA’s line.

It then took until after 11 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 2, before City Hall and NYCHA let the tenants and public know about the results. At that point, under the recommendation of the city health department, residents were advised not to drink or cook with the water, and City Hall began handing out cases of bottled water to alarmed residents.

Since then City Hall and NYCHA have questioned the validity of the original positive results, while tenants and elected officials have demanded more details—including the actual test results.

In his statement to the press, Adams spokesperson Levy said that “We have now tested more than 140 points — both at the source and at the point of delivery — and we can confidently say the water at Riis Houses is and has been free of any discernible amount of arsenic since the initial tests were initiated in August.”

Levy also implied the city may pursue litigation against EMT, stating, “Needless to say, neither NYCHA nor any other city agency will test water through Environmental Monitoring and Technologies any longer, and the city intends to pursue all available legal options on behalf of the residents of Riis Houses.”

City Hall also promised to release all the test result records from EMT on Saturday.

Meanwhile Bart Schwartz, the court-ordered federal monitor that oversees NYCHA, has opened an inquiry into what happened at the Riis Houses, asking the authority to retain all records of communications and documentation. On Friday, a spokesman for the monitor did not return a call seeking comment about the status of that investigation.

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