Aggressive Plans To Bring Drinking Fountains Up To Healthy Standards

RIOC Promises To Fix Our Fountains, But Tries & Fails To Erase History

Updated 45 weeks ago David Stone
Two fountains at Capobianco Field were found to be contaminated with a cancer causing chemical, methylene chloride.
Two fountains at Capobianco Field were found to be contaminated with a cancer causing chemical, methylene chloride.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

In a meeting strategically designed to highlight efforts to fix a broken system, RIOC outlined plans to overhaul water supplies underlying parks and playground irrigation and drinking fountains. Representatives promised future compliance, but failed utterly to take responsibility for past failures bringing Roosevelt Island to its water crisis.

Plan Is Born, Founded on Careful Research

It was a mixed bag with RIOC presenting a sturdy, responsible plan for future compliance with water safety, then undermining it when President/CEO Susan Rosenthal shouted down efforts to get them to recognize hazards residents as well as visitors may have been unknowingly subjected to for more than a generation.

Although ostensibly setting up the meeting to answer questions raised after RIOC failed its initial efforts to stem resident concerns, Rosenthal announced at the outset that questions would be limited to one per person with no follow up. If time allowed, a second question might be allowed. This eliminates questions requiring depth and detail and failed almost immediately.

It was the not so bright part in a tightly orchestrated, rehearsed meeting with all the characteristics of lawyerly direction.

Rosenthal kicked off the meeting, emphasizing - and sometimes exaggerating - the short tenures of her staff. It repeated a tactic already in use, a device intended to waive responsibility for poorly managed parks and playground water systems.

A more realistic view is that Rosenthal and her team, from Vice President of Operations Shelton Haynes on down, continued a mess of bad practices failing to protect public health for over two years and would have continued doing so, had Frank Farance not blown the whistle.

And even Farance may never have discovered the risky pattern, in place for decades, of supplying park and playground fountains with water unfit for human consumption, if RIOC personnel hadn't publicly flubbed an attempt to force the cat sanctuary out of Southpoint.

Sprayers like this one use the same non potable water source as several park and playground drinking fountains
Sprayers like this one use the same non potable water source as several park and playground drinking fountains

She then handed off to a consultant, Bertrand A. Byrne, a Senior Project Manager for Cameron Engineering & Associates.

RIOC engaged Cameron after being forced to shut down drinking fountains island-wide, coming to grips with a scary lack of knowledge about how water operated within networks of supply in their facilities and what, if any, safeguards were in place. An immediate threat to public health couldn't be dodged.

Cameron's assignment was to find out as much as they could about how RIOC used or misused City water and recommend a remediation plan. Politically, at the same time, RIOC leveraged the pending remediation plan as a way to maneuver out of discussions about tidal waves of unknowable, but certain historical failures to protect drinking water.

Objectively, this looked like a career bank robber announcing plans to go straight in the future and expecting that to erase all vaults raided in the past and any responsibility for losses. Defense attorneys employee tools like this to get judges to reduce sentences and parole boards to approve early releases.

The major hazard, created by hooking up drinking fountains to irrigation systems, was described by Byrne, RIOC's consultant, as "dangerous." It'd been going on here for more than a generation.

(Byrne, whose firm is trying to land a contract with RIOC, later walked that back to "risky," a change of phrase not likely to give much relief to parents who know their children, including infants, drank from the fountains for years.)

Byrnes presented a 79 page document detailing everything presently knowable about RIOC's water systems that will serve as a reference and a starting point for needed fixes.

There were significant missing elements. Although Byrne was allowed to report that RIOC failed, in the last year, to conduct legally required tests on backflow devices, Rosenthal shouted down our question about whether there was any evidence that the State agency had conducted them at any time in the last ten years.

Erasing as much history as possible was in play.

Next up was Stephen Noone, RIOC's Vice President for Capital Planning.

Noone took up where Byrne left off, explaining intentions to toe the line going forward and the half-a-million plus budget for equipment and construction needed to bring systems into compliance. Pending Board approval on spending, Noone said that the work should take three to four months, starting in the spring, in answer to a question from Rivercross resident Anne Kanninen.

RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal
RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal
Photo courtesy of RIOC

Resident Questions, Some RIOC Answers

With State Health Department official Roger Sokol on the phone to participate, the floor was opened for questioning. Questions were robust, the responses not so much.

It's important to note here that, at no time, did RIOC or any health official apologize for the dangers Roosevelt Island families have been subjected to for decades. There was no indication of remorse or regret. In fact, RIOC vigorously fought off efforts to get them to acknowledge responsibility.

There was evidence of coordination between all parties on the government side with Rosenthal familiarly addressing Sokol as "Roger" while the rest of us used "Doctor."

After Frank Farance probed the scientific viability of some of the tests used and Sokol tried to downplay risks, RIRA Vice President Lynne Shinozaki framed a question, hoping to get Sokol and RIOC to understand why parents are worried.

Because Capobianco Park, identified as having two fountains flagged for hazardous chemical contamination, is across the street from PS/IS 217, it's heavily trafficked by children on a daily basis.

Some mothers, Shinozaki pointed out, filled infants' bottles with water from fountains now known, from RIOC reports, to be contaminated with a known cancer causing chemical, methylene chloride.

When Sokol offered no more than vague reassurances about safety, Shinozaki deftly landed a knockout question. Would Sokol feel safe if his own children had been drinking from these fountains for years?

Taken aback, Sokol was silent for an extended period before mumbling something about not having enough tests...

Questioned by The Daily, Sokol said he did not recall telling RIOC that there were "no coliforms" found in testing as the State agency claimed in a September post on Facebook and in a letter to State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright.

"Total Coliforms," a term used as an indicator of fecal matter in drinking water, was flagged multiple times, detected in park water fountains in a report by Long Island Analytical Laboratory. 

RIOC similarly failed to tell residents or Seawright in its post that high levels of methylene chloride were found at both fountains in Capobianco Park.

Here, RIOC brought in a representative from the Long Island Analytical, also by phone. The representative played down the coliform bacteria found by his own lab in Southpoint but never addressed bacteria also found in Lighthouse Park.

When we encouraged Long Island Analytical to acknowledge that he was merely speculating and not reporting facts, we were shouted down first by RIOC General Counsel Jacqueline Flug, then Rosenthal who shut off discussion with "We're not going to get into that."

Picnicking in Southpoint on the 4th of July where a fountain continued to be operating after being flagged for coliform bacteria.
Picnicking in Southpoint on the 4th of July where a fountain continued to be operating after being flagged for coliform bacteria.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

In spite of coliform bacteria being flagged in a Southpoint water fountain, it was never shut down as RIOC claimed. (Another fountain in Lighthouse Park also remained in operation.) This fact was confirmed by Common Council Member Rossana Ceruzzi who's in the park every day, managing the cat sanctuary.

RIOC's response: someone must have tampered with the water supply. No explanation was offered as to why it was not discovered in the four months since their claimed shutdown.

Ending in Acrimony

Lunchtime was approaching, and anyone who's worked extensively with State employees knows that they have very specific appetite alarms. They go off with the same accuracy as the five o'clock dismissal alarm.

So, I tried to get in a last, critical question I was saving, addressed to Stephen Noone who's arguably the most responsible and truthful of RIOC's managers.

Is it true, I asked, that the tests by Long Island Analytical were no more than snapshots that tell us nothing about conditions in prior years, for example, 2001 or 1998...? 

Rosenthal blew up, angrily shouting over my question, claiming it was a "cross examination."

But we weren't in a courtroom, and she'd promised that all questions would be answered. And really, if anyone needed to be cross examined, it wouldn't be Noone, the newest of staff present who had little or nothing to do with the misconduct that forced RIOC to shut down their fountains.

Why Rosenthal went ballistic on that one question is anyone's guess, but here's mine.

RIOC, under Rosenthal, is desperate to avoid liability for a Roosevelt Island generation's exposure to water unfit for human consumption, something that continued during her watch as well as every President before her and was halted only after Frank Farance, not any State employee, discovered it.

RIOC, in my opinion, doesn't want that floodgate opened and has failed repeatedly to respond fully to efforts to get them to publicly acknowledge what's gone on for so long. 

Why would this time be any different?


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