The New York City Council Committee on Health met yesterday, October 30, at City Hall to discuss seven bills that all pertain to water tanks. These water tanks should not be confused with cooling towers. Whereas the latter is part of a building’s HVAC system, the former are the iconic, wooden structures that are use gravity to deliver drinking water to most of the city’s buildings, provided they are over six stories tall.
The administrative code of the city currently requires owners to have their water tanks inspected at least once annually and, since 2015, to send documentation showing the results of the inspection to the Health Department. Meanwhile, the Department of Environmental Protection tests the city’s water supply, which is transported from upstate, more than 600,000 times per year. Additionally, the Health Department operates a comprehensive surveillance system that monitors the city for 100 distinct illnesses that could be tied to an outbreak stemming from a rogue pathogen found in either the water supply of a building or the water supply of the city. Finally, the Building, Plumbing, and Health Codes all have requirements that pertain to the construction and cleaning of these tanks, and there is already protocol in place that requires owners to deal with E. coli and coliform bacteria contamination. These policies will only be strengthened once Local Law 239 goes into effect in the spring of 2019.
Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, who spoke on behalf of the City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene at the hearing, assured the committee that the current system is sufficient. To date, they “have never linked a cluster or outbreak of disease to a water tank.” Dr. Daskalakis, who is Deputy Commissioner for Disease Control at DOHMH, affirmed that the department is “confident that drinking water tanks do not pose a public health risk to New Yorkers.”
While there have not been any reported outbreaks of illness due to water tank contamination, a story in City & State that ran back in May suggests that this is not because these tanks are even remotely sanitary. Even well-maintained tanks, the piece claims, often “accumulate layers of muck and bacterial slime.” However, there are relatively few instances in which contaminates are reported during annual inspections. This, the report muses, seems odd.
“Building owners who do self-report the condition of their water tanks provide suspiciously spotless descriptions on annual inspection reports,” the City & State piece continues. “These reports include bacteriological test results, but in almost every case the tests are conducted only after the tanks have been disinfected, making it a meaningless metric for determining the typical quality of a building’s drinking water.”
While it is unlikely that the City & State article is the sole impetus for all seven new pieces of legislation, it did repeatedly come up during the hearing. Committee Chair Mark Levine (D-Dist. 7) seems to have been particularly shaken by its findings. It's no surprise; the photographs in the article are disturbing.
However, as Dr. Daskalakis pointed out repeatedly during the hearing, the city's drinking water supply is not in immanent danger and not all wooden water tanks are cesspools of disease. Furthermore, he suggested that these bills are superfluous because they strive to fix issues already addressed by existing legislation. Consequently, it is unlikely that all these bills will pass. It is also unlikely that those that do pass will not be amended following recommendations from city agencies such as the DOHMH and the Department of Buildings.
Here they are.
Sponsored by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Dist. 3) and Councilmembers Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Dist. 41) and Diana Ayala (D-Dist. 8), this bill, along with Int 1157-2018, will almost certainly pass. It will require inspectors to submit results directly to the Health Department after inspection. Int 1053-2018 will also require water tank inspection companies (not just owners) to maintain a copy of all water tank inspections conducted for five years from the date of inspection.
This piece of legislation is sponsored by Councilmembers Consta Constantinides (D-Dist. 22), Mark Levine (D-Dist. 7), Ritchie Torres (D-Dist. 15), Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Dist. 41), and Diana Ayala (D-Dist. 8) and strongly supported by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. Int 1056-2018 will authorize the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to conduct periodic inspections of water tanks. The impetus behind the bill is to eliminate a contagion before it can harm residents and to give agents access to examine tanks for structural defects so that repairs can be made before the situation becomes critical. While the intention may be good, the Department does not support this legislation because it feels existing regulations are sufficient.
Similar to the bill directly above, Int 1138-2018, which was introduced by Councilmembers Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Dist. 41) and Helen Rosenthal (D-Dist 6), will allow representatives from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to conduct additional tests whenever a water tank tests positive for harmful bacteria. Again, while the impetus behind the bill is praiseworthy, it is also superfluous. The department stressed that existing laws and regulations are sufficient.
As stated above, inspection companies send reports to the city after the tanks have been cleaned. This gives the city a far rosier view of what the tanks contain. To give the city a more realistic description of what the tanks are like, Int 1150-2018 will require tanks be examined during their annual inspection prior to their being cleaned (there is no current law requiring tanks be cleaned each year). It was introduced by Councilmembers Ben Kallos (D-Dist. 5), Mark Levine (D-Dist. 7), Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Dist. 41), and is supported by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.
Int 1157-2018 better spells out the qualifications that one must possess to inspect a water tank. It is supported by the Plumbing Foundation of the City of New York and is almost certain to pass. It was introduced by Councilmembers Ben Kallos (D-Dist. 5) and Mark Levine (D-Dist. 7). It is supported by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.
Introduced by Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, Jr. (D-Dist. 17), Int 1167-2018 requires owners to repair damaged tanks within 90 days of learning of said damage. The bill amends the administrative code to mandate such repairs. However, the Plumbing and Building Codes already require these repairs take place following an inspection. It is a well-intentioned bill, but existing regulations are sufficient to tackle this problem.
Finally, Int 1169-2018, which was introduced by Councilmembers Ritchie Torres (D-Dist. 15) and Ben Kallos (D-Dist. 5), requires annual reports for water tanks to include video or photographic evidence taken by inspectors.