The Bronx County civil courthouse on Grand Concourse Avenue is a busy place. The building, with nine floors and around 40 courtrooms, has been a designated New York City landmark since 1976. Hundreds of lawyers and litigants come in and out of the building each day to argue labor disputes, personal injury cases and business disagreements. Many others come to get married, file for divorce or change their names.
If those visitors are thirsty, however, few of them can get a drink of water.
While official guidelines call for drinking water fountains in public areas of all state courthouses, most of the fountains in the Bronx civil courthouse have not worked for years, said court workers and lawyers who regularly do business there. The safety of the water that comes out of few working fountains is also questionable, they said.
Instead, people who work in the courthouse said they buy bottled water or rely on freestanding water coolers purchased by the city. The water coolers are in private office space and are not available to the public.
The courthouse, built between 1931 and 1934, is also called the Mario Merola Building in memory of the late Bronx district attorney.
When asked about the water fountains, seven court workers complained and said they do not work. Most asked not to be identified, because the court does not allow them to talk with reporters. Regulars to the courthouse also said they know to avoid the water fountains. “I never use it,” said lawyer Raymond Gazer, 38. “It’s never worked as long as I have been here, nine years.”
The Ink counted 28 public water fountains in the courthouse and found that 19 of them did not work. Some jury rooms have working water fountains, according to Michele Baez, 45, who works as a secretary to one of the judges. The Ink went to one jury room on the second floor and found one working water fountain.
Baez added that court workers will provide pitchers of water in the courtroom, but Gazer said those have limited value. “That is only during trials and only for the lawyers, judge, litigants, witnesses and staff,” he said. Family members and other visitors don’t have access to the pitchers.
The nine working fountains are not reliable, either. “The main problem is the water pressure,” said Enrique Leal, an attorney who frequently has business in the courthouse. It’s not high enough.” The water from several of the working fountains barely trickles out, which makes it difficult to drink.
Not that anyone really wants to do so. The water from the fountains has a metallic smell and taste. John McConnell, 58, a senior court clerk in the courthouse, advised The Ink not to drink it, because the pipes systems are really old.
Rosa Duarde, 50, has worked as a cleaner in the courthouse for 13 years and said she only drinks from the coolers. She sometimes sees people using the water fountains and said she thinks warnings should be posted about the quality of the water. While she said she doesn’t know if the water is actually unsafe, “it is good to put signs around the drinking fountains,” she said.
A second custodian who is responsible for cleaning floors in the courthouse said he doesn’t trust the safety of the water. “I only drink bottled water I bought outside,” said the custodian who declined to give his name.
According to the administrative rules of New York State Court, public waiting and information spaces, including “the main entrance lobby and areas outside the courtrooms,” should have certain public facilities. “Drinking water fountains should be located in these areas,” the rules say.
Most floors in the courthouse have four public water fountains. The public fountains on the fourth, fifth and seventh floors no longer work. The first, second, sixth and eighth floors each have only one working fountain. There are no water fountains in the basement, and the ninth floor is not open to public.
Some of the water fountains have rusty taps that look as if they have never been replaced. The water does not flow out from these taps, no matter how hard the button is pressed. Waste paper, cigarette butts and other dirt can be seen in some of these fountains. Some fountains have taps that look newer, but these also do not work.
“The fountains are not broken,” Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the New York State Unified Court System wrote in an email to The Ink. “They are being taken out of service by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.”
The custodian’s office on the ground floor of the building is responsible for the upkeep of water fountains, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services oversees the custodian’s office. The custodians declined to be interviewed. Their supervisor, Julius Torres, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Water safety has been a major issue in public school buildings in the city after many fountains were found to have lead in the water above the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended maximum of 15 micrograms per liter. “Lead is a toxic metal that affects many organs and systems,” said Ana Navas-Acien, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “It is well known to impair children’s intelligence, and the impact on the cognitive system is long lasting and also affects individuals as they age with an increased risk of dementia and cognitive impairment.” Lead can also increase the risk of having a heart attack, she said.
The Ink tested a 250-milliliter water sample from a water fountain on the fifth floor of the courthouse using a testing kit sold online. The kit showed a level of lead in the water higher than the EPA maximum of 15 micrograms per liter. The Ink also brought water samples to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University for testing. Three samples — from the third, fifth and eighth floors — had lead levels between 105 to 498 micrograms per liter, higher than the EPA’s recommended maximum.
Water safety experts cautioned that the results are preliminary and shouldn’t be relied on to declare the water unsafe to drink. Patricia Culligan, a civil engineering professor at Columbia University, said The Ink’s findings in the tests for lead indicated a need for a more thorough investigation. She recommended that proper lead testing be conducted to ensure that the water in drinking fountains is not a public health hazard.
In the meantime, some courthouse regulars like attorney Gazer would be happy to see a few working water fountains. “They should fix at least one for each floor in the building,” he said.