NYCHA first received reports of “cloudy water” streaming out of taps at Manhattan’s Riis Houses in May — more than five months before a water supply arsenic scare upended the lives of thousands of residents at the sprawling public housing complex, agency officials said Friday.
The officials, among whom was interim NYCHA chief executive Lisa Bova-Hiatt, made the admission during an at times heated City Council hearing that also featured emotional testimony from enraged Riis residents.
In prepared remarks, Bova-Hiatt testified that her agency received its first complaint of “cloudy water” at the East Village housing project on May 1, much earlier than previously acknowledged by NYCHA and Mayor Adams’ office.
Over the coming five months, NYCHA logged 92 more complaints about discolored water at the complex, a majority of them after July 3, Bova-Hiatt said.
But it took until Sept. 2 for the agency to announce the Riis Houses water supply contained elevated levels of arsenic, a dangerous toxin that can be deadly and cause various serious health issues if ingested.
In a since-infamous turn of events, NYCHA and Adams announced Sept. 9 that the arsenic detection was incorrect — and that a lab contracted by the city had inadvertently added trace amounts of the chemical to a test sample.
Bova-Hiatt and other NYCHA brass at Friday’s hearing apologized repeatedly to Riis Houses residents for the confusing arsenic situation.
“We have not been shy about calling out our mistakes and being transparent about what needs to change,” she said.
Bova-Hiatt confirmed that NYCHA first learned of the since-retracted arsenic results on Aug. 29, days before the public was alerted.
“Why weren’t residents warned as soon as NYCHA knew?” asked Brooklyn Councilmember Alexa Aviles, chair of the Council’s Public Housing Committee.
Bova-Hiatt responded by comparing the situation at Riis to treating a “trauma patient,” saying that the initial detection required more testing in order to not needlessly worry residents.
Another unanswered question prior to Friday’s hearing was why NYCHA ordered arsenic testing in the first place.
The chief executive said it was ordered because officials didn’t want to leave any stones unturned and “were concerned about the welfare of our residents given the number of cloudy water results we were getting.”
In an olive branch to Riis residents, Bova-Hiatt said NYCHA will issue $200 to the head of every household at the complex, which is home to some 4,000 people.
But the cash pledge brought little comfort to residents, who say they’ve dealt for years with water and heating issues, not to mention mold and lead paint.
At a press conference before the Council hearing, Maribel Soto, a 12-year Riis resident, said she still doesn’t drink water from her taps even though the city has declared it safe.
“I don’t trust the city, I don’t trust the city,” she said.
Inside the hearing, Council members said NYCHA and the Adams administration have not taken enough responsibility for the fiasco at Riis — and took particular aim at Greg Russ, the agency’s chairman.
Up until recently, Russ also held the role of NYCHA’s CEO, earning him a combined $414,000 annually, but he was stripped of the chief executive post in the wake of the Riis scandal. As chair, he still earns $258,000 as chair — but didn’t bother showing up to Friday’s hearing to testify.
“That’s disgusting. That is disgusting for him to decide not to be here,” city Public Advocate Jumaane Williams told Bova-Hiatt.
Several Council members and residents demanded that Russ be axed from NYCHA for good.
“Mayor Adams, he should fire Greg Russ. He should not be the chair of NYCHA — gross mismanagement, incompetency, and the insensitivity of not coming to this hearing and not explaining himself,” said Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron, prompting applause and cheers from Riis residents at the hearing.
Asked where Russ was, Bova-Hiatt told Council member “is not in New York, but I cannot tell you where he is.”
“It is a huge disservice,” Aviles said of Russ’ absence, “not only to the institution, but to the residents, the residents whom we all serve.”
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