NYC mayor laments not being told earlier about arsenic in public housing complex drinking water

·4 min read

NEW YORK — Mayor Eric Adams questioned Monday why members of his own administration didn’t inform him sooner about arsenic being discovered in the drinking water at a massive New York City Housing Authority complex in Manhattan.

According to a city government official, NYCHA brass first found out this past Thursday that elevated levels of the dangerous chemical had been detected in the water at the Riis Houses in the East Village.

But, speaking to the Daily News on Monday morning, Adams claimed he wasn’t told of the arsenic until the next day, suggesting a communication breakdown may be to blame.

“I found out Friday,” Adams said. “We’re doing a review to find out when (the Department of Environmental Protection) was aware because there should have been a natural step of notification.”

The Department of Environmental Protection, which is responsible for the city’s water supply, declined to comment on when it first found out about the arsenic traces. A spokeswoman for NYCHA did not return a request for comment.

Large doses of arsenic can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration. Long-term exposure to the chemical can lead to skin disorders, diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The city has directed Riis Houses residents to not drink from their taps until further testing is done at the complex. City workers are distributing free bottled water to residents in the interim.

Late Monday, Adams spokesman Charles Lutvak said the city has conducted “more precise” tests at the Riis Houses over the past few days and that they’ve all come back negative for arsenic.

“While these results are promising, the health and safety of New Yorkers are our top priorities, which is why the mayor has ordered additional testing to be conducted to be absolutely certain the water is safe to drink,” Lutvak said. “We are now waiting on test results for more than 100 additional delivery points.”

It’s not clear when or why water tests were first ordered at the Riis Houses, which is one of the city’s largest NYCHA developments, home to nearly 4,000 people.

The City, a nonprofit news organization, reported that NYCHA officials first learned over two weeks ago that arsenic had been discovered at the Riis Houses, but did not alert the public until Friday. NYCHA has disputed The City’s timeline, saying it did not know about any arsenic traces until Thursday.

An Adams administration official said Monday that NYCHA received reports two weeks ago about “cloudy water” coming out of taps at the Riis Houses. But those reports did not indicate that arsenic was in the water, the official said.

City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said the fact that Adams apparently wasn’t informed about the arsenic until Friday speaks to dysfunction in NYCHA leadership.

“If that is true, it is a further indication of the problems at NYCHA and how NYCHA is being managed,” Williams said.

Since the arsenic traces came to light, Bart Schwartz, NYCHA’s court-appointed federal monitor, has launched an investigation into when city officials first found out about the matter and how long it took them to act.

Late Sunday, Joseph Jaffe, an investigator with Schwartz’s office, sent a letter to NYCHA officials instructing them to “preserve all documents related to this issue” and be prepared to make them available if requested by the monitor.

“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,” Jaffe’s letter stated.

Adams, who was speaking to The News on the sidelines of the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn, said his administration will cooperate fully with Schwartz’s inquiry.

“We’re doing a complete, thorough review, and we’re going to be transparent on the flow of what happened,” he said.

NYCHA has been under federal monitoring since 2016, when the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office found that the authority’s management had for years failed to address dangerous conditions at its developments, including lead paint and toxic mold.