Even as New York City lawmakers trumpeted two new laws to improve compliance with lax drinking water tank regulations and enforcement on Wednesday, it appears another city agency has been neglecting a water tank serving some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Homeless men entering shelter in New York City are directed to pass through old iron gates and step inside the soot-stained old Bellevue Hospital building that now serves as the intake shelter for adult men on East 30th Street in Manhattan. But it’s unclear if anyone knew that those men were being served drinking water from a neglected wooden water tank that, until a few days ago, had never been cleaned, inspected or tested – in violation of city law and the health code.
In response to requests for water tank inspection records by this reporter, the New York City Department of Homeless Services said the official in charge of maintaining the water tanks resigned a year ago. But it appears the department continued to neglect the tank until it received questions from City & State.
In addition, the department said it immediately contracted a water tank company to clean, inspect and take water samples from the tank around midnight on Aug. 6. The results of the inspection were not available, officials said, but provided a “preliminary certification” for “August 2018.”
“To all New Yorkers, including those who may seek or be receiving services at this location: though we have no reason to believe there is any cause for concern, these inspections are now back on track and we will continue to monitor the matter out of an abundance of caution,” department spokeswoman Arianna Fishman said in a statement.
There is little information available about the condition of the Bellevue shelter water tank or the drinking water inside it, other than the fact that the wood tank was built in June 2013, according to homeless services officials. These officials were quick to note, however, that there is also no indication that the water poses a health risk.
Fishman said the department had no records of inspection results, maintenance, cleaning or bacteriological water testing of the tank, calling it “an oversight” that they are working to correct.
“That’s crazy,” said New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, reacting to the neglected tank atop the Bellevue homeless shelter. Johnson had just left an emergency meeting on Wednesday evening with NYCHA tenants in Chelsea where they discussed contamination in their drinking water tanks, as revealed in a City & State investigation last week. In the closed-door meeting, state Sen. Brad Hoylman, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer as well as NYCHA and city health officials met with residents of the Chelsea NYCHA buildings where tank inspectors found birds and insects in the drinking water tanks – contamination that was never reported, as required by law. Health officials assured residents that although repairs had still not been made to the damaged tanks, the water was safe to drink and that a fact sheet would be distributed to the residents next week, Johnson said.
“These tanks need to be inspected regularly so that people can have assurances that the water that they are either drinking or bathing in is safe. Every water tank needs to be inspected,” Johnson said.
In a statement, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said, “As we have said before, we take mandated inspection requirements very seriously – water tanks should be inspected and maintenance performed as identified during the inspection. While there is no evidence that the water from water tanks raises any public health concern, and there has never been a sickness or outbreak traced back to a water tank, we are reviewing records and discussing this serious oversight with our sister agency. We will provide guidance about water tank inspection requirements.”
The Bellevue homeless shelter, officially the 30th Street Men's Shelter, with 850 beds, is the entry point for the more than 11,000 single men housed there or at other locations. On Wednesday evening, seven men staying at the Bellevue shelter gave mixed reviews of the water quality there. They agreed that the building’s cold water was often warm and served out of fountains. Most men said the water was unremarkable and they drank it. Two men had complaints.
“It sucks,” said one man, leaning against scaffolding inside the old building’s iron gates. He declined to be named because he didn’t want to cause trouble for himself at the shelter. “It’s brownish.” He said he pays for bottled water at the corner store. Another man leaned up against a brick wall drinking out of a Poland Spring bottle. A vending machine sells water inside the shelter, several men said.
Ivan, 44, who declined to give his last name because he too didn’t want to cause trouble at the shelter, sat outside at a cement table eating his dinner off a Styrofoam plate. “It’s not that good,” Ivan said of the building’s drinking water. He hasn’t noticed brown water, but said it will often come out warm.
The shelter, which isn’t air conditioned, doesn’t make it easy to go without water, particularly on hot summer nights. Benjamin Huw, 46, said he gets heat rashes from the plastic-wrapped mattresses and the 90-degree temperatures. Huw noted that security officers won’t allow outside drinks like juice inside. “I drink tons of water,” Huw said.
While little is known about the condition of the drinking water at the men’s intake shelter or what the drinking water tank inspection there may find, city officials introduced new legislation in an effort to improve compliance with city laws surrounding drinking water tank maintenance, testing and cleaning.
The New York City Council introduced two bills on Wednesday to address problems with the thousands of rooftop drinking water tanks, citing City & State’s initial investigation in May highlighting the scope of uninspected tanks and a July report revealing previously unreported contamination in NYCHA’s water tanks.
A trio of lawmakers, the heads of the environmental protection, health, and investigations committees, introduced a bill that would require health inspectors to make unannounced inspections of drinking water tanks. Speaker Corey Johnson introduced another bill that would require water tank inspection companies to submit annual inspection reports directly to the city Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, prior to submitting such reports to building owners.
“New Yorkers should not have to worry about harmful bacteria in the water they drink,” said Councilman Costa Constantinides, the lead sponsor on the surprise water tank inspection bill. “Unfortunately, landlords are misrepresenting the condition of the water stored inside tanks for many buildings. This legislation will provide the necessary oversight to ensure our residents, especially those in low-income housing, are healthy.”
But after the emergency meeting, Johnson said he was considering further measures to regulate the drinking water tanks.
“This meeting that we just had opened up another line of thinking, which is whether we should be mandating the testing of the water before they do the water tank cleaning,” Johnson said of the emergency NYCHA tenant meeting on Wednesday. “We’re going to go through the legislative process, but there may be additional bills that we may do now.”
That concept, in line with one floated earlier by Councilman Mark Levine, is among a list of proposals, including several by Councilman Ritchie Torres. Those proposals are still under review by council lawyers, a spokesman for Torres said.
Meanwhile, after the emergency meeting in Chelsea, an elderly resident of the Chelsea Houses Addition, where birds were found in the water supply for two years in a row, said he hopes change is coming soon.
“Sometimes we have the black water when I take a shower,” said Miguel Torres, 88, sitting on his walker outside the seniors-only NYCHA apartment building. “Not all of the time. But most of the time.”
Correction: The image that originally ran with this story was of the new Bellevue Hospital building, instead of the former Bellevue building, where the 30th Street Men's Shelter now resides. It has also been clarified that the official name of the facility is now the 30th Street Men's Shelter.
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