Early Reports Incomplete But Troubling

Rosenthal: Bacteria and Elevated Iron Level Found in Early Fountain Testing

Updated 12 weeks ago David Stone

At a Special RIOC Board Meeting arranged with the primary purpose of moving Westview's affordability bid forward, President/CEO Susan Rosenthal shared some troubling information in her President's Report. Early discoveries show bacteria and lead in Roosevelt Island drinking fountains.

Bacteria Verified in Drinking Fountains

Water fountains require clean separation from irrigation systems.
Water fountains require clean separation from irrigation systems.
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"Not E. coli," Rosenthal added parenthetically, seeking to assure residents and visitors who've sipped from RIOC's drinking fountains that, so far, Escherichia coli, the most familiar and widely feared bacterium is not present.

E. coli is one variety of an estimated 100 trillion bacteria in the average human body. Only about 1% are harmful, and even most E. coli do no harm.

Further tests will determine the full extent and kind of bacteria now in the Island's public fountains.

Of greater concern for many is the length of time people have been ingesting contaminated water, now that the State has acknowledged it's there. RIOC may never be able to determine when contamination originated because it appears testing was never done, making a timeline impossible.

Further, nothing verifies healthful protocols were ever in place to protect drinking fountains.

Water from this fountain in Lighthouse Park does not appear to be protected with backflow prevention but is directly connected to the irrigation system.
Water from this fountain in Lighthouse Park does not appear to be protected with backflow prevention but is directly connected to the irrigation system.
Photo credit: Frank Farance

Regardless of liability, it's hoped that RIOC will be fully transparent as further results become known. A remediation plan is expected within two weeks, according to Rosenthal.

Senator Serrano Steps Up, Kallos and Seawright Sit It Out on the Sidelines

After RIOC left a mess of unanswered questions and worries behind after a botched effort to shut down the Southpoint Cat Sanctuary, where careless distribution of water unfit for human or animal consumption was first exposed, doubts arose about the State's ability to police itself.

"I have been contacted by constituents on Roosevelt Island regarding drinking water fountains at several locations, including the Al Lewis Playground and Lighthouse Park. They report that the fountains may be connected to a non- potable water source, which would present a potential health hazard to Island residents and visitors," State Senator José Serrano wrote in letter to Rosenthal, after reading articles in The Daily.

"The availability of clean and free drinking water is essential to quality of life on Roosevelt Island, and we must ensure that children and adults have access to safe water in the places where they live, work and play. I respectfully request that RIOC provide my office, as well as other Island elected officials, with the results of any water analysis, including points of direct waterline connections to all public water fountains on Roosevelt Island."

In a separate email, Serrano's Communications Director Damaris Olivo told The Daily, "We share your concerns and will continue to look into this issue."

Serrano's proactivity contrasts sharply with a lack of attention from City Council Member Ben Kallos and State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright.

Kallos's office claimed to know nothing about the issue, despite news accounts and being copied on multiple emails about concerns. Asked what steps were taken to alert City agencies to apparent health threats, Kallos's staff had no answer. It's unknown if steps have been taken since our inquiry, ten days ago.

More disturbing is the absence of any response from Assembly Member Seawright, whose Chief of Staff, Audrey Tannen, a Roosevelt Island resident, failed to respond to a request for information. A one on one conversation with staff attorney Rebecca Graham also failed to shake loose any sign of concern or activity from Seawright's office.

Why RIOC and Elected Officials Need To Get Involved

Rosenthal: Bacteria and Elevated Iron Level Found in Early Fountain Testing
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Research, observation as well as RIOC's responses to questions regarding its water protection practices - or lack thereof - strongly suggest that the State agency has not protected public water supplies, as required by law, at any point in its history. Backflow devices mandated by law at federal, state and city level to prevent contaminated water from leaking back into public systems don't seem to be installed at most or all of RIOC's locations.

What this means is that RIOC may have put New York City water supplies at risk of contamination for decades. Local residents, including nearby communities in Queens and Manhattan, may have been exposed to bacteria, feces and other toxins through negligence.

Not only are backflow devices mandated, inspections by the certified experts are also required from the original construction of irrigation systems and annually thereafter.

RIOC's reluctance to answer direct questions its irrigation system practices raises red flags, as it should. What also ought to be alarming is that  elected officials, whose job it is to look out for us, aren't listening.

Watch for a more detailed discussion about irrigation systems and backflow devices designed to keep them from contaminating the water you and I drink.

Correction: an earlier version misquoted Rosenthal as saying there were elevated lead levels found. A review shows that she actually said iron, a much less harmful, secondary contaminant. 

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