Report: NYCHA ‘mishandled’ water issues at East Village public housing complex in 2022

The New York City Housing Authority bungled its response to concerns about the water at the Jacob Riis Houses in Manhattan two years ago, causing “unquantifiable stress” for residents, according to a watchdog report released Thursday.

The joint investigation by the Department of Investigation and the office of Bart M. Schwartz, the former federal monitor for NYCHA, looked into complaints of cloudy water at the East Village housing complex in the summer of 2022, and the Housing Authority’s subsequent response.

According to the report, NYCHA’s lack of trained staff and established procedures for water testing led to the agency incorrectly reporting that the water was contaminated with arsenic, ultimately costing the agency $500,000 dollars in unnecessary expenses and causing residents unneeded grief. The report said the response to the water concerns was “mishandled.”

In early September 2022, NYCHA warned the roughly 3,900 residents of Jacob Riis Houses that unsafe levels of arsenic had been detected in the tap water and advised them against drinking or cooking with it. Around a week later, the lab that had done the testing retracted those results, claiming subsequent testing found arsenic levels to be well below the federal limits for safe drinking. By mid-September, then-CEO of NYCHA Greg Russ had stepped down from the role.

According to the report, the cloudy water at the Jacob Riis Houses was a result of the failure of one of two house pumps in the development, which put stress on the second one and aerated the water, which looks cloudy. The report also pointed out that the lab that produced the faulty results – a subcontractor of the one the city hired — lacked the required New York state certification to test for arsenic.

In a statement, DOI Commissioner Jocelyn E. Strauber said the agency’s failure to figure out the cause of the water concerns was the root cause of the fiasco, but that the labs should also be held accountable.

“NYCHA’s inability to properly determine the cause of the water concerns at Jacob Riis Houses was the starting point of the agency’s flawed response, prompting undue anxiety and stress for residents and a delay in resolving their complaints about discolored water — problems that were not caused by arsenic but by a failed house pump,” Strauber said.

Strauber continued, “NYCHA also failed to provide adequate guidance to the laboratory that subcontracted out the testing to a vendor that lacked appropriate certification to test for arsenic and other contaminants. The laboratory and its subcontractor also bear responsibility in this troubling incident.”

In a statement, NYCHA spokesperson Michael Horgan said the report reiterated the agency’s own narrative.

“The Department of Investigation’s report reaffirms that there is no — and never was any — arsenic in the water at Riis Houses and demonstrates that NYCHA acted in good faith to respond quickly to what we now know was a laboratory error,” Horgan said. “The process has been investigated and put through rigorous evaluation, with robust public transparency, and in the months since this incident, NYCHA has taken many steps including the establishment of the Office of Water Quality, to strengthen and improve its internal processes as we continue to move the Authority forward.”

The report details 23 recommendations made by the DOI and former NYCHA federal monitor to improve its water quality management, like the establishment of the Office of Water Quality, which the agency has already accepted.

It was also recommended that NYCHA’s contracts with future vendors “specify that water will be retested following a positive result indicating the presence of a contaminant and that re-test results should be available as soon as possible, but no later than 24-48 hours thereafter.”

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