The lab company that falsely reported high arsenic levels in water samples at Jacob Riis Houses in Manhattan’s East Side was not authorized to work in New York, public housing officials said.
NYCHA’s interim CEO Lisa Bova-Hiatt made the revelation at a heated New York City Council hearing on Friday on the arsenic scare that disrupted the lives of the complex’s residents earlier this month. She told members at the joint housing and oversight committee hearing that Illinois-based Environmental Monitoring and Technologies (EMT) had been hired by LiquiTech to test the water at the sprawling complex.
“We did not previously choose EMT and we will not allow EMT to be used again,” NYCHA Chief Operating Officer Eva Trimble said at the hearing. According to Trimble, LiquiTech violated its contract with the public housing authority for picking a lab company not certified to perform work in New York. Officials on Friday could not say why LiquiTech chose the lab. A review of state records show EMT is not listed as certified to perform testing in New York.
Neither EMT or LiquiTech responded to requests for comment as of Friday night.
The hearing marked the first time officials testified under oath about the water scare. Bova-Hiatt presented a timeline of the events, beginning with a complaint of cloudy water on May 1st, months earlier than previously reported by NYCHA.
Water samples were collected and tested throughout August, but it wasn’t until September 2nd that tenants were told of the supposed elevated levels of arsenic, an element that can cause cancer.
For over a week, residents were advised to not drink or cook with their tap water. Then, on September 9th, NYCHA announced the test results were incorrect, and that the testing company inserted arsenic into its samples. The city conducted its own testing after the lab company retracted its results and found the water to be safe to drink.
City Council members grilled the officials on the confusing sequence of events, including why residents were not immediately told about what was believed to be undrinkable water. Bova-Hiatt said NYCHA wanted to be sure before sounding the alarm based on the results of just one test, and ordered more testing, relying on EMT to produce a second set of results. Suspicious of the unusual results, NYCHA ultimately hired another testing company to perform the work, Trimble said.
Residents of the complex also gave at times emotional testimony during the hearing on Friday.
“To say that fear is a factor, it’s more than fear. To be called outta your homes at eight o'clock at night, to tell you that there is a possibility that the water has arsenic in it. It scares you,” Daphne Williams, president of Jacob Riis Houses tenants association said.
Many Jacob Riis residents like Rebecca Perkins said after so much back and forth, they find it hard to believe the water is now safe.
“I'm sorry, but I'm not sorry, I don't trust NYCHA whatsoever,” said Rebecca Perkins, who lives at the complex with her three children. “It's hard for me to believe them when they said that there's no arsenic in the water and then they telling me, you know, don't trust it, then trust it. Then don't trust it. Then, then trust it. I don't know what to believe.”
Noticeably absent at the hearing was NYCHA’s current chair and now outgoing CEO Gregory Russ.
“To not have him participate was a very poor decision and further validates resident suspicion of the agency, and this continued skirting of accountability,” said Councilmember Alexa Avilés, the council’s housing chair.
Russ was demoted shortly after the arsenic revelations were made.
At the hearing, Bova-Hiatt noted Russ chose not to appear at the hearing, pointing out that he was “not in New York.”
“I cannot tell you where he is,” Bova-Hiatt said. “All I can say is that he's not here today.”