A Brooklyn water filter company has been preying on the fears of Jamaica residents whose tap water is part of a new community-based cancer study — and, city officials say, posing as city employees to gain access to their homes, and their faucets.
Two weeks ago, state Senator Malcolm Smith and state Assemblymember William Scarborough announced they plan to begin a cancer study in Southeast Queens later this month. A state investigation completed four years ago revealed that a spill of the dry-cleaning chemical perchloroethylene, or PERC, had likely tainted some local drinking water wells in the 1970s. How, the legislators and local civic groups wondered, has that spill affected rates of illness?
New York Environmental Resources — which sells high-end water filtration systems — jumped at the news. For the last couple of weeks, its salespeople have been door-knocking all over southern Queens. Bernetha Hunt of Jamaica thought it was strange when a woman from the company
showed up at her home last week to request a sample of her tap water. After all, she says, the city Department of Environmental Protection, at her request, had tested her water twice in the last two years. And last summer, a private company hired by the city tested the wells.
When the woman at Hunt’s door refused to say whom she worked for — “We are in the neighborhood testing everyone’s water for contamination,” was all she would say — Hunt shut her door. She later found out from her neighbors that reps from New York Environmental Resources had visited them, too.
Last week, one company worker knocked on the wrong door. Claiming to work for the “water department,” a salesman gave his pitch to a local resident — who also happened to work for the city Department of Environmental Protection. Soon after, the city issued an advisory warning
Southeast Queens residents to beware of “impostors” posing as DEP employees.
“We have had experience with the same company before, and we had to put out notices to the Police Department,” said DEP spokesperson Charles Sturcken. “Whether they are good or bad, they are working under false pretenses. They are preying upon people, making them think the water is
not healthy, when in fact all of the water meets federal, state and local standards.”
New York Environmental Resources did not return calls for this article, but the company has contended in previous interviews that there is nothing illegal or deceptive about its sales tactics.
That hasn’t made one elderly Laurelton resident feel any better. Last spring, she says, a woman with an “official-looking” badge from the “official-sounding” company convinced her to give over a sample of her water. A few days later, a company rep said her water was “100 percent”
worse than everyone else’s on the block and that “it was imperative” that she buy a filter system — for between $5,000 and $7,600.
“He kept pressuring me, and even told me that it would be paid for by some city program, which is entirely untrue,” she said afterward. “I finally printed my name — I didn’t sign it though — just to get him out of my house.” She later telephoned the company and canceled the contract.