The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) held a public meeting Wednesday morning to discuss the recent water test results of various Roosevelt Island drinking fountains. According to experts at the meeting, the water fountains at Capobianco Field and Al Lewis Playground have an unsafe amount of a cancer-causing chemical and will remain off until the source of the contaminate can be identified and fixed. However, the sprinklers at Blackwell have been turned back on. Though all other Island water fountains do remain off, they do test within safe limits.
Dr. Roger C. Sokol, director of environmental health protection for the State’s Department of Health, and Michael Veraldi, vice president of Long Island Analytical Laboratories, which conducted the tests, attended the meeting via conference call. Bertrand A. Byrne of Cameron Engineering & Associates, also attended the meeting to discuss the Island’s irrigation sources and to advise RIOC how to bring them up to code.
Wednesday’s meeting was a follow-up to an initial meeting, held on September 14, with Mickey Rindler and Rossana Ceruzzi from the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA). Rindler and Ceruzzi, along with some members of the community, had questioned the findings and conclusions made by RIOC and their experts.
In a letter, Rindler and Ceruzzi complained that the full 79-page water testing report completed by Long Island Analytics wasn’t disclosed to them. “To say that we and the community are severely disappointed with the disposition of the meeting and the actions of RIOC, and that all of our, and the community’s, questions were answered during the September 14 meeting is a severe understatement,” said Ceruzzi and Rindler.
Representatives from both borough president Gale Brewer’s office and Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright’s office attended the October 10 meeting.
A Break with the Past
During the 90-minute meeting, RIOC President Susan Rosenthal acknowledged that mistakes had been made in the past, but said her administration has worked to put new systems and personnel in place at RIOC to address them and ensure work is performed correctly in the future. She pointed to Assistant Vice President of Projects and Planning Steven Noone, and Tamara Andreatta, the new director of Asset Management at RIOC, as harbingers of a new, more responsible RIOC.
Previously, Rosenthal has complained of lax record keeping by previous RIOC administrations and personnel, pointing out that RIOC General Counsel Jaci Flug had spent considerable time at the New York State Archives putting news systems in place.
RIOC personnel, including Chief Operating Officer Shelton Haynes, and President Susan Rosenthal on the front left, and Director of Asset Management Tamara Andreatta, and Assistant Vice President of Department of Projects and Planning Steven Noone on the front right, attended the meeting.
A major problem throughout this process has been finding the “as-built drawings” – the final set of drawings a contractor files to document work, changes, construction processes and the location of all elements of the work completed and maintained. Those drawings were not archived for any of the water fountains on the Island. Had they been, they could have informed RIOC as to whether the playground fountains were connected to the irrigation lines or drinking water lines. Water from irrigation lines is considered non-potable, regardless of what tests results say.
RIOC had the “as-builts” for Southpoint Park’s drinking fountain from 2010 and can verify that its water comes from from its domestic line, not the park’s irrigation system.
The Water Fountains
Water fountains at Lighthouse Park, Blackwell Park, Southpoint Park by the Ruin, as well as Capobianco Field and Al Lewis Playgrounds remain off.
Dr. Sokol said that, aside from Al Lewis Playground and Capobianco, “all of the other fountains are consistent with what is in NYC DEP water.”
At the meeting, Noone clarified that the water fountains located by the Ruin in Southpoint Park, the two fountains in Lighthouse Park, and fountains in Blackwell Park will either have to be outfitted with backflow protection devices or be decommissioned, taken offline permanently. Without the “as-built” drawings, other measures have to be taken to ensure adherence with the law. Cameron is evaluating costs for both options. Noone said it is possible that, depending on cost, some of the lesser-used fountains will not be replaced; he did not say how he would assess use.
The two fountains that are particularly problematic are the water fountains at Capobianco Field and Al Lewis Playground. The water in those fountains has been found to contain the chemical methylene chloride. Methylene chloride is used in various industrial processes, in many different industries. It is widely used as an industrial solvent and as a paint stripper. It can be found in certain aerosol and pesticide products and is used in the manufacture of photographic film. The chemical may be found in some spray paints, automotive cleaners, and other household products. Methylene chloride does not occur naturally in the environment. When asked whether the contamination might be a result of recent construction on the Helix roadway, experts could not offer a definitive answer. In fact, because there are no previous records of any water testing ever being done, it is not clear how long the water has contained this chemical.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry hasn’t seen much of this chemical in drinking water. Most agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classify the chemical as "possibly cancer-causing," though at what levels is unclear. Noone said the plan is to find the source of the methyline chloride and take it from there.
Bernard A. Byrne from Cameron Engineering & Associates, went through a 396-page report regarding the Island’s 11 irrigation sources. After making site visits, taking photos, and making point-of-connection assessments, Byrne went through all 11 sources and made recommendations to RIOC regarding each one. Many were missing the required backflow prevention devices, others were in poor condition, or leaking. While they are required to be inspected on a yearly basis, for the most part, there is no record that they have ever been inspected.
Rosenthal said she is hopeful that the Board could vote on a proposal to fix the water fountains at their next meeting, scheduled for October 18. RIOC expects the cost to exceed $500,000. Work would start in the spring and take three or four months.
On Friday, July 6, RIOC announced, via a press release, that they were shutting down all drinking fountains. They said they needed to investigate potential water line issues. It had been revealed during a water-use disagreement with Wildlife Freedom Fund (WWF), which runs cat sanctuaries on the Island, that the water WWF was using for its Southpoint sanctuary is not potable. In a June 7 press release, RIOC said, “Irrigation system water, like the one Wildlife Freedom Foundation (WWF) was using, is not potable; that means the water is not suitable for drinking by humans or animals.” (WWF has since said it was willing to continue to use “not potable,” water for their Southpoint sanctuary).
Since then, first Healthy Building International Inc. and then Long Island Analytical Laboratories were retained by RIOC to conduct water sampling and analysis at several drinking water fountain locations in parks and playgrounds across Roosevelt Island.
The tests were designed to provide a comprehensive analysis of the water and to confirm its acceptability for consumption. The samples will be compared with the relevant federal Department of Environmental Protection (EPA) contaminant levels of microbials, metals and inorganic substances.