Common Council Acts On Contamination Fears

As Common Council Joins In, Flaws In RIOC's Water Testing Appear

Updated 33 weeks ago David Stone

In a letter from Common Council President Jeffrey Escobar, also signed by Committee Chairs Rossana Ceruzzi and Mickey Rindler, the Roosevelt Island Residents Association turned up the pressure on RIOC to be more forthcoming and transparent in its response to the contaminated water crisis. And a closer look exposes dangerous inadequacies in the current efforts.

As Common Council Joins In, Flaws In RIOC's Water Testing Appear

"Of particular disappointment is RIOC’s failure to keep in direct communication with residents, particularly those that use such water fountains, about the concern over the safety of consumption of water from the drinking water fountains as well as its failure to adequately post signs/notices with information related to the drinking fountains shut off and the reasons for such shut off," Escobar wrote to RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal.

In spite of federal guidelines, RIOC continues a longstanding practice of knowingly dispensing non-potable water - that is, unfit for human or animal consumption - without posting warnings.

But it's another part of Escobar's letter that, in perspective, should sound louder alarms.

"It would be prudent that RIOC recall that the suspicion of contamination of the public drinking fountains arose from information that RIOC provided to Roosevelt Island residents during negotiations to secure an adequate source of potable water for the WFF cat sanctuary in Southpoint Park."

RIOC voluntarily reported that its water supply to the Southpoint Cat Sanctuary was connected, not to a safe water source, but to its irrigation system. Additional inspections by Common Council Alternate Frank Farance showed that drinking fountains in Al Lewis and Lighthouse Parks also appear to be connected to irrigation systems, resulting in RIOC's belatedly shutting off all of its Island water fountains, pending testing to determined public health hazards.

Violations of federal, state and local laws designed to protect the public may be rampant in RIOC's systems.

Testing by Healthy Building International Inc., a firm specializing in indoor environmental quality with no apparent experience in the work to which they've been assigned, does not go nearly far enough.

According to RIOC, the South Orange, New Jersey, company, was hired "to conduct water sampling and analysis at several drinking water fountain locations in parks and playgrounds across Roosevelt Island."

The problem here - and early results are already concerning - is that all they'll get is a contemporary snapshot that tells us next to nothing about past history and fails even to address the most pressing concerns.

What should be setting off alarms across the Island and into neighboring communities is the possible absence or inadequacy of backflow prevention devices required to protect the public water supply.

As Common Council Joins In, Flaws In RIOC's Water Testing Appear

After an extended series of evasions, dodging the question of why some personnel were trying to shut down the sanctuary, RIOC dropped a bomb in early June:

"Irrigation system water, like the one WFF was using, is not potable; that means the water is not suitable for drinking by humans or animals since it’s contaminated by fertilizer, pesticides, feces and other contaminates."

That is, the State agency had supplied contaminated water to the cat sanctuary and undoubtedly others using the unmarked tap for an untold number of years. No liability or acceptance of responsibility was offered, but what came next was more troubling.

Asked to explain how long they were aware of the hazard and why no prior warnings were issued, RIOC stood mute.

They refused to answer multiple requests, but more significantly, RIOC administration refused to answer questions about backflow prevention devices, if any, in place to keep irrigation systems from contaminating the public water supply.

Testing as described in their press release will do nothing to address this because local water fountains are already connected to irrigation systems, apparently without protections for public health. What matters is whether RIOC has contaminated water supplies outside the parks with bacteria, viruses, feces, insecticides and so forth.

As Common Council Joins In, Flaws In RIOC's Water Testing Appear

For example, if appropriate backflow prevention is not in place, supplies to places like Cornell Tech, the WIRE buildings and Coler Hospital may have been affected and for years. Illnesses caused by negligence may never have been associated with RIOC's unprotected irrigation systems.

Evidence strongly suggests that RIOC does not have backflow prevention devices as required by law at federal, state and local levels, and even if it does in some locations, there appears to be no records of annual inspections which are also mandated.

No report will be adequate until RIOC fully addresses the range of potential hazards exposed by its sloppy handling of the Southpoint Cat Sanctuary fiasco. The State agency needs to come clean about what it has in place or doesn't, who's responsible and what will be done about it. 

Potential liability is huge, and RIOC needs to do much more to inform everyone, from elected officials to worried parents. A summary report on the present status of fountains will be woefully inadequate.


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