The dirty water fountain scandal, still standing. Awaiting its coverup?

The dirty water fountain scandal, still standing. Awaiting its coverup?

Pushed behind future RIOC screw ups, its water fountain scandal, one of the worst so far, needs keeping in focus… Because 2 1/2 years later, it’s still unexplained and unresolved. Here’s and updated version of our 2018 report from The Roosevelt Island Daily.

RIOC Weird World: Damning report blamed on poor record keeping, will take half-million to fix

DAVID STONE

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

The strangeness of RIOC’s version of the world took another bizarre turn, when the state transformed a damning report about water safety into a commitment to better record keeping. It was deft, a maneuver blaming others and turning a blind eye to serious hazards that continue.

At Public Meeting, the Water Fountain Scandal Redirected to Retro Blaming

At a public meeting ostensibly called for answering questions about RIOC’s brutal mishandling of public water supplies — required after two prior efforts at recreating facts, using RIOC-speak, failed to convince many — the State agency that never makes a mistake trotted out a promised report from Cameron Engineering.

An illustration by Frank Farance shows a water fountain connected with the irrigation system in Lighthouse Park. It continued operating, months after RIOC claimed all fountains were closed.

Objectively, Cameron’s report convicts RIOC of carelessness, risking the water supply for decades. And not just on Roosevelt Island, but potentially leaking far beyond.

Deploying tactics imagined by George Orwell or even Mitch McConnell, President/CEO Susan Rosenthal, assisted by Legal Counsel Jacqueline Flug and a team of not quite comfortable aides, switched everything around.

They blamed, yes, record keeping, not employee ineptitude and indifference.

But RIOC kept it opaque, recruiting a consultant already linked with them, one likely to benefit from painting a picture the state preferred.

About Cameron Engineering

Caught supplying drinking fountains in playgrounds and parks with water unfit for human consumption, the State agency issued a statement:

“On July 23, RIOC hired a plumbing engineer, Cameron Engineering & Associates of New York, to complete an assessment of all water connection points from New York City water to Island parks’ distribution.”

You can’t be blamed if you believed this meant that Cameron would perform an arms-length review and present a warts and all report. You can’t be blamed, but you’d have been wrong.

ROOSEVELT ISLAND OPERATING CORPORATION WATER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM – CROSS CONNECTION STUDY 

…starts with a cover looking for all the world like a promotional brochure. And it then soft pedals some frightening facts while ignoring others. It lays the water fountain scandal out without realistic context.

Why?

RIOC’s blatant gall tumbled out late that same day in their Board agenda for this month. 

Cameron Engineering is on the list for not one but three contract awards. One is for consulting on the AVAC system. Another is for “Vertical Conveyance” (not a joke), and repairs needed for Lighthouse Park. 

How’s that for an arms-length relationship?

But that’s not all as Cameron’s vying for additional money for work on the water system disaster their report tiptoes through.

RIOC’s ever compliant Board of Enablers is expected to reward Cameron with all three contracts and more to come.

Note: While that happened, Cameron lost out when they failed at meeting state women and minority hiring requirements. The RIOC awards were disqualified.

About the Report

Giardia found in Roosevelt Island water fountains sparks scandal…

RIOC set the stage for deception with a tactic that got them rebuked by the Common Council after an earlier staged and controlled meeting.

Stacks of material waited on the table, It was orderly, but nothing was new.

The Cameron Engineering report, which was not on the agenda or on the table. But echoes of their last flopped presentation, RIOC used it as primary information for the meeting.

The report’s dated “September, 2018,” meaning RIOC had it more than a week and a half before the meeting, in plenty of time to rehearse, but never distributed it.

My copy arrived the next day, part of a FOIL request made in June.

What’s missing?

Cover what’s not in the report may be unorthodox, but it’s critical to why the absence of an objective viewpoint makes it so weak.

Sure, later on, Cameron bulks up the report with pasted in pages of regulations, making it misleadingly hefty.

But nowhere does the consultant explain why a study about cross-connections in the water supply is vital.

You might wonder, who cares about backflow devices? And does it really matter if RIOC violated public health requirements for decades? Where’s the harm?

What’s the big deal?

You won’t find answers to these questions in Cameron’s report, and even as they list one damning finding after another, you won’t see anything about why any of them matter.

What you will see is Cameron quoting on project costs RIOC must pay for.

RIOC personnel tried driving out the Southpoint cat sanctuary by cutting off its water supply in summer. That failed, after public protests, but it lead to the water fountain scandal.

So, let’s tell the truth….

Cameron came in after a flubbed effort to evict the cat sanctuary from Southpoint,  RIOC fumbled its way into disclosing its mishandling water safety.

For decades.

Weeks later, Frank Farance’s discovered that RIOC fed drinking fountains in parks and playgrounds with non potable water. That’s water “unfit for human consumption.” But children and adults using Roosevelt Island facilities had swallowed water contaminated with feces and insecticides for decades.

And the state had no plans for changing until Farance caught them.

It’s all about backflow devices. 

This is engineering stuff you’d probably never have to know anything about, had RIOC not so thoroughly ignored regulations and exposed New York City’s water supply to unrestricted contamination. That abuse extended into how they handled irrigation and water fountains.

Cameron’s report makes it clear, if sugar-coated.

Backflow devices are a requirement since the early 90s in New York, whenever anyone taps into the public water supply for in-ground irrigation, as RIOC does.

These tools became mandatory because research found countless illnesses caused by contaminated irrigation water. Without them, dirty water sucks back into public systems.

Warm-blooded animal feces, like that flagged in water fountains on Roosevelt Island, spreads disease, from E. coli to amoebic dysentery.

But RIOC’s staff knew nothing about it or failed to act, if they did.

The water fountain scandal: Most of RIOC’s irrigation systems operate without backflow devices. 

Even in places were Cameron found appropriate devices, it could not verify that their working properly or at all.

Required water safety features were missing at Capobianco Field, directly across the street from PS/IS 217.

Capobianco Field, site of some of RIOC’s worst violations, is across the street from PS/IS 217.

Laws mandate annual inspections by certified engineers, the reports filed with the Department of Environmental Protection. But Cameron found not a single RIOC controlled device tagged as inspected at any time.

RIOC’s consultant soft-pedaled this, suggesting only that there was no evidence that inspections took place in the last year.

But then, when I asked Bertrand Byrne, Cameron’s Project Manager, if there was any evidence that there’d been any inspections in the last ten years, Legal Counsel Jacqueline Flug, parked behind Byrne, angrily shouted the question down.

Backflow prevention devices were not in place for irrigation systems serving the Rivercross lawn, Capobianco Field, Blackwell Park and the Meditation Steps. At each of these locations, RIOC put the public water supply at risk for as long as they’ve been in operation.

And that’s completely separate from the dangerous violations of hooking up drinking fountains to the same potentially contaminated irrigation systems.

What RIOC Had To Say

Rosenthal started the meeting with the now standard, windy excuse-making. In her third year running the agency, Rosenthal went on at length again about how her administration was too new to be held responsible, although people on her grounds staff oversaw these systems for a decade or more.

There was no apology or acceptance of responsibility offered, of course.

Next, she dumped more on he pile of excuse-making, blaming past administrations for poor record keeping, as if that had something to do with mismanaging water safety on her watch, and even — it was breathtaking, really — praising Flug for improving RIOC’s handling of records.

When Byrne finished his report, the show was handed over to Stephen Noone, a RIOC executive, who summarized their commitment to at least a half-million dollars to bringing Roosevelt Island’s water supply into compliance and keeping it there.

Although Rosenthal earlier promised, “All questions will be answered,” about the water fountain scandal, she didn’t really mean all questions.

When I asked Noone to confirm that we still don’t know much of anything about contamination in drinking fountains going back at least a generation, Rosenthal shouted me down, calling it a “cross examination,” ending the meeting before answering questions about responsibility for the most dangerous practices.

The water fountain scandal, 2021

Because RIOC, so frequently bound up in chaos, failed to act after Cameron got dumped, nothing’s been done for bringing the water fountains back safely.

While the state may hope that time will erase the scandal, residents may never know the details about what happened. And certainly, accountability will be avoided as much as possible.

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