New York City

Mayor Adams Promises ‘Thorough’ Look at How His Team Handled Riis Arsenic Discovery

Eric Adams is promising transparency as his administration probes how things got so cloudy in the first place.

September 7, 2022 Greg B. Smith and Katie Honan, THE CITY
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Mayor Adams on Tuesday promised a “thorough report” on how his administration handled the discovery of tests showing arsenic in the water at a Lower East Side public housing development.

“We’re going to be extremely transparent,” he told reporters, after refusing to take off-topic questions at a press conference about public safety. “We’re going to do a thorough report of what we’re doing, to make sure that people are safe.”

Residents at the Jacob Riis Houses weren’t informed about tests showing arsenic levels in the water exceeding what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems acceptable until late on Friday evening, hours after THE CITY began asking about them and more than two days after NYCHA was aware of those results.

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Adams — who showed up at the Riis Houses late Friday night to hand out bottled water, in an event that had been added to his schedule less than an hour beforehand and with no mention of arsenic — told the Daily News on Monday that he had concerns about the days it took from word of the test results to make their way from NYCHA and the city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to the mayor.

“I found out Friday,” Adams told the paper. “We’re doing a review to find out when (DEP) was aware because there should have been a natural step of notification …. We’re going to be transparent on the flow of what happened.”

On Aug. 30, an environmental firm hired by NYCHA, LiquiTech, collected water samples at six locations in two separate buildings at Riis. That included tap water from kitchens in three apartments, and three more locations listed as “point(s) of entry” to the two buildings, 465 E. 10th St. and 466 E. 10th St.

By Wednesday, NYCHA was aware that five of the six tested positive for unacceptable levels of arsenic. The samples were apparently retested, and LiquiTech issued a report with the findings on Thursday.

Prior to those tests, and following months of resident complaints about cloudy water, DEP had declared the water at Riis drinkable on Aug. 16, after conducting tests that did not include checking for arsenic. For reasons not yet explained, NYCHA then expanded the scope of testing to include looking for arsenic.

Riis Houses resident Teresa Pedroza says residents started complaining back in January about the water quality, Sept. 6, 2022.
Riis Houses resident Teresa Pedroza says residents started complaining back in January about the water quality, Sept. 6, 2022. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The DEP has conducted more tests at Riis since Saturday, all of which have found no trace of arsenic, the mayor’s office said on Tuesday. Also on Tuesday, the mayor promised the testing would continue throughout the development that houses 2,600 tenants in 13 buildings hard by the FDR Drive.

The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene became involved in the issue at some point last week, DOHMH Commissioner Ashwin Vasan told THE CITY on Tuesday.

“As soon as NYCHA informed us, we were involved in discussions [with] DEP and NYCHA,” he said, explaining that the health department’s role is mostly to offer “scientific and technical advice.”

“We interpret the EPA guidance, we interpret the health risks, we try to provide clear explanations for ‘do not drink’ orders and the like, so that’s what my team has been doing since last week.”

The health department continues to advise tenants at Riis not to drink or cook with the water until the system can be thoroughly flushed, which involves running the taps for three to four hours in each apartment. Tenants can still bathe in the water, according to the Department’s advice.

On Saturday, the federal monitor that oversees NYCHA initiated an investigation, and ordered NYCHA to preserve all documents related to the discovery of arsenic in the water.

On Tuesday Diane Struzzi, a spokesperson for the city Department of Investigation (DOI), told THE CITY that “DOI is aware of this matter and declines further comment.”

As residents continued to pick up bottled water at tents set up by the city on Tuesday, tenant Teresa Pedroza noted that water problems at Riis are nothing new.

“People have been complaining about cloudy water since January,” she said. “That makes you wonder if they’ve been lying to us all this time, that people are covering it up.”

“It’s infuriating,” she added. “I feel like they’re treating us like a second-class citizen. It’s not right what they’re doing.”

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