NYCHA first received reports of “cloudy water” leaking from faucets in the Riis Houses in Manhattan in May – more than five months before the arsenic threat in water supplies changed the lives of thousands of residents in a sprawling community estate, agency officials said on Friday.
Officials, including NYCHA’s interim CEO, Lisa Bova-Hiatt, admitted this in the sometimes heated City Council hearings, which also contained emotional testimony from angry residents of Riis.
In prepared submissions, Bova-Hiatt said her agency received its first complaint about “cloudy water” at the East Village condo on May 1, much earlier than NYCHA and Adams’s mayor’s office had confirmed earlier.
Bova-Hiatt said over the next five months, NYCHA has registered a further 92 complaints about discolored water on the complex, most of them after July 3.
But it wasn’t until September 2 that the agency announced that the Riis Houses water contained elevated levels of arsenic, a dangerous toxin that can be fatal and cause a variety of serious health problems if ingested.
In the infamous turn of events, NYCHA and Adams announced on September 9 that arsenic detection was incorrect – and that a laboratory contracted by the city had inadvertently added trace amounts of the chemical to a test sample.
Bova-Hiatt and other NYCHA members repeatedly apologized to the Riis Houses for an incomprehensible arsenic situation at their hearing on Friday.
“We were not ashamed to be aware of our mistakes and be transparent about what needs to be changed,” she said.
Bova-Hiatt confirmed that NYCHA first became aware of the arsenic results that had been withdrawn since then on August 29, days before notifying the public.
“Why were the residents not warned as soon as NYCHA found out about it?” asked Brooklyn council member Alexa Aviles, chairman of the Council’s Public Housing Committee.
Bova-Hiatt responded by comparing the situation in Riis to the treatment of a “trauma patient,” saying that initial detection required more testing in order not to worry residents unnecessarily.
Another unanswered question ahead of Friday’s hearing was why NYCHA commissioned an arsenic test in the first place.
The chief executive said it was ordered because officials did not want to leave any stones unturned and were “concerned about the welfare of our residents given the number of haze results we received.”
In an olive branch for residents, Riis Bova-Hiatt said NYCHA would spend $ 200 on the heads of every household in the complex, where some 4,000 people live.
The cash pledge, however, has not brought comfort to the residents, who say that they have been struggling with water and heating problems for years, not to mention mold and lead paint.
In a press conference ahead of the Council meeting, Maribel Soto, a 12-year-old resident of Riis, said she still does not drink water from her taps, even though the city considered her safe.
“I don’t trust the city, I don’t trust the city,” she said.
During the hearing, members of the Council stated that the NYCHA and the Adams administration did not take sufficient responsibility for the Riis fiasco – and focused on Greg Russ, the agency’s president.
Until recently, Russ also served as CEO of NYCHA, earning him a total of $ 414,000 a year, but was removed from his CEO position following the Riis scandal. As chairman, he still earns $ 258,000 as chairman, but he didn’t bother showing up at Friday’s hearing to testify.
“It’s disgusting. It’s disgusting to him that he chose not to be here,” said city public spokesman Jumaane Williams Bova-Hiatt.
Several council members and residents have demanded that Russ be expelled from NYCH forever.
– Mayor Adams should fire Greg Russ. He shouldn’t be the chairman of the NYCH – blatant mismanagement, incompetence and insensitivity resulting from failing to attend this hearing and not explaining himself, ”said Brooklyn councilor Charles Barron, eliciting applause and cheers from the Riis residents during the hearing.
When asked where Russ was, Bova-Hiatt told a council member “he’s not in New York, but I can’t tell you where he is.”
“This is a great harm,” Aviles said of Russ’s absence, “not only for institutions, but also for the people we all serve.”
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