Council speaker calls emergency meeting on NYCHA’s water tanks

CityandState.pngBy Frank G. Runyeon

New York City elected officials and tenants’ advocates denounced the deteriorating condition of the rooftop water tanks that supply drinking water to New York City Housing Authority tenants, following a report by City & Statewhich revealed dozens of cases of contamination – including birds, rodents, and insects in the tanks – that were never reported to city health officials, as the law requires.

NYCHA indicated that it was revising its policies and health officials said they were examining documents and working with the housing agency to “provide guidance about water tank inspection requirements.” The health department repeated a common refrain that “there is no evidence that the water from water tanks raises any public health concern, and there has never been a sickness or outbreak traced back to a water tank.”

Those official statements did not placate a chorus of discontent over the revelations.

“The reports on contamination in NYCHA water tanks are appalling,” said New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who represents tenants spotlighted in the City & State report. “This is unacceptable in my district, and it’s unacceptable anywhere in the five boroughs. NYCHA needs to get its act together – quickly. The hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who live in NYCHA buildings deserve better.”

Johnson is scheduling an emergency meeting at the Chelsea Houses with NYCHA and city health officials, according to a spokesman for the speaker. Birds were found in drinking water tanks in both the Elliott and Chelsea housing developments in 2017.

New York City Councilman Mark Levine, who chairs the council’s Committee on Health that has oversight over the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the agency responsible for ensuring the water tanks are properly maintained, also weighed in.

“NYCHA's shameful legacy of underinvestment has spared no infrastructure system, including the thousands of water towers that residents depend on,” Levine said in a statement. “No one should have to question the quality of their drinking water – especially not NYCHA residents facing challenges on so many other fronts.”

Elected officials launched reform initiatives and a formal inquiry earlier this year after a City & State investigation published in May showed the city’s largely wooden water tanks were often neglected and oversight was lax.

“The City Council is working on a package of bills that will further strengthen the rules for inspection and repair of water tanks while providing much more transparent reports to the public, both in private housing and at NYCHA,” Levine said. “Such policies are critical to ensuring that New Yorkers have full confidence in their drinking water supply.”

Regarding City & State’s NYCHA report, Nicole Turso, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Investigation, said, “DOI is aware of the matter and declines further comment.”

New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal Jr., who represents a swath of Brooklyn that includes several housing projects, tweeted, “NYCHA must inspect and replace all of its buildings dilapidated water towers. It’s an outrage that residents are unknowingly exposed to contaminated drinking water @NYCHA.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. also weighed in on Twitter, writing, “The more details we learn about the ongoing crisis at NYCHA, the more it seems like the official policy of the City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is to ignore the health and well-being of their tenants.” He added, “This administration is responsible for NYCHA, no matter how much they pretend they are not, and must do better.”

Advocates criticized NYCHA in wake of City & State’s report as well.

“This report about water towers is a symptom of an overarching illness that affects all of NYCHA,” said Elie Hecht, a housing advocacy group that works closely with NYCHA tenants. “They don’t tell the truth. … They don’t do what they’re supposed to do, and then they cover up all the messes that they make.”

“The buildings make people sick and this is actually a more egregious example in my mind than some of the others,” Hecht continued. “You’re talking about the water that people are using to drink and to cook with and it’s no good and they’re not telling people. They’re hiding it instead of fixing it and they’re covering it up.”

Darlene Waters, president of the Elliott-Chelsea Houses Tenants’ Association, said no one told her anything about birds and insects in the rooftop drinking water tanks until Johnson’s office reached out to her after reading City & State’s report.

“They should at least tell the tenants’ association. That’s ridiculous,” Waters said, criticizing NYCHA for failing to tell them what was in their water. “People are drinking the water or taking showers. You can’t have that in there. That’s a health hazard.”

Maria Santos, a NYCHA resident in an elderly-only building who previously told City & State that she was afraid to drink her water, said Johnson’s office called her and requested to meet her and other tenants. “They’re taking this to heart,” Santos said.

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